Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things
Before somebody inevitably describes the Loud Family as clever pop, and you go off sneering, be advised that this is the new musical phoenix risen whole and rocking from the ashes of the late great Game Theory. With images lifted from a decade's worth of old books, TV shows, and rock songs, plus patented Scott Miller tongue-in-tweek lyrics (priceless song title: "Ballad Of How You Can All Shut Up"), the Loud Family is the aftermath of a high-speed collision between several solid pop bands and the cast of Firesign Theatre.
The Loud Family are equal parts late-'60s era Beatles and present day Smashing Pumpkins. Almost every song is as catchy as the previous ones and they definitely have a future in the music world. Ex-Game Theory singer Scott Miller is the dude with the John Lennon pipes. Extremely strong songwriting is their gift. Mitch Easter, the mastermind behind the production and engineer work of the early R.E.M., is doing the behind the scenes work and also sings on two songs. Best cuts: "Sword Swallower," "Jimmy Still Comes Around," "Rosy Overdrive" and "The Second Grade Applauds." If you like pop or liked Game Theory's '80s albums, then you'll love this with a passion.
Like most of Scott Miller's ideas, dubbing this group the Loud Family is at once ingenious and obscure. On the one hand, it's a hip allusion to the mid-Seventies PBS series An American Family; on the other, it's a clever way to describe the sound and feel of the band. Either way, it's a great hook -- smart, funny and instantly memorable. All of which, appropriately enough, are qualities shared by Miller's songs.
So why haven't you heard of this guy? Partly because Miller's previous band, Game Theory, never garnered more than a cult following through its six-album run (even so, those who caught on will swear that its Lolita Nation was an overlooked masterpiece). But mostly it's because his songs, though insinuatingly tuneful, can be maddeningly oblique, fleshing out each verse with abstruse references to long-forgotten pop songs and TV shows; at times, the results sound like Thomas Pynchon writing for Big Star.
Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things
(Rating: *** 1/2)
Let's face it: Smart rock doesn't sell. Despite the best efforts of critics, despite the support of introspective, collegiate humanities majors who have assimilation problems, even despite the soft spot certain record companies occasionally show for music with a brain, the market share is marginal. Therefore, to persevere at making hyperliterate music that has complex motives and is densely constructed -- relative to the immediate sparkle and shine of mainstream chart music, that is -- is an act of bravery, commitment, or lunacy.
Scott Miller, the former leader of Game Theory, now the head of household for the Loud Family, whose Alias debut, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, has just been released, probably has no choice in the matter. Like Robyn Hitchcock, Thomas Dolby, Michael Stipe, and Paul Westerberg, he is an entity unto himself, taking dictation from a mind working overtime without stopping to consider the possibility of success or banishment. Problem is, those others have squeezed through the needle's eye to varying degrees, while Miller still labors in semi-obscurity, his back catalog bulging like Ph.D. theses interred in some musty corner of a rarely visited library.
But maybe this fresh start with the Loud Family will rekindle interest in the Miller oeuvre. Imagine a cross between Alex Chilton, James Joyce, and the Electric Prunes. His oblique but arresting musical overview cross-fertilizes guitar-driven power pop with reality - altering psychedelic flourishes and the studio technocrat's version of Burroughsian cut-and-paste. Songs begin in the middle, dissolve into one another, end abruptly, are interrupted with effects - samples, disembodied voices, computer-altered instrumentation, what-have-you. Clearly, Miller views songs not as fixed entities but as a kind of amorphous musical Play-Doh to be shaped as much by whim as by rules, giving latitude to experimentation and chance to make an event out of the recording process.
Abetted by producer Mitch Easter, who knows from both the accessible and deconstructionist ends of the pop spectrum, Miller and the Loud Family have fashioned Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things -- title derived from America's "Horse with No Name" (!) -- into a kind of aural sculpture, a hologram for the ears and a hypnotic for the mind. In terms of Miller's previous work, the album is a bulky, experimental tour de force, like Lolita Nation, while incorporating some of the song-oriented, listener-friendly appeal of 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, the final Game Theory effort. The lyrics for these nineteen songs are dense, private cryptograms, the subjects ranging from the peculiar calculus of relationships to the onset of intellectual entropy in society as seen in the behavior of individuals, most often aimless youth.
Musically, the album is a trip for adventurous ears. Like the changing patterns inside a kaleidoscope, you never know which way the colored bits will array themselves. Every so often, the Loud Family will reward your perseverance for hanging through the more intricate passages with a killer chorus, like those in "Take Me Down (Too Halloo)" and "Idiot Son." In the end, Miller probably thinks too much, but he knows intuitively when to back off and sugarcoat and when to push the envelope.
Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is not so much an album as a slalom run through the cerebellum. It's pop enough to hook you and sufficiently challenging to ensnare you in its intellectual/aesthetic web.
The thing about every truly great pop song is that it was never really written.
The best songs are never slaved over by their creators. No. The ones that get you excitably running off tapes and legging it over to your mate's house so that he can hear it too, yeah, those ones... they existed in our subconscious well before someone got a songwriting credit for them. These songs are immaculate conceptions, delivered into the world by midwives like the Loud Family's Scott Miller, erstwhile leader of Game Theory.
The first time I heard "Idiot Son" was also the millionth time. Hyperactive powerchords fall over themselves to see who'll be first to get to the chorus, then Scott's Mascis-on-speed timbre ushers the song out before it's properly done. Just the way it should be. Remember the way Primal Scream's "Velocity Girl" would chime into action and people would scarper to the dancefloor, only to find that at one minute, 22 seconds it was all over? Great pop never outstays its welcome.
It's the first week of spring, and Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is this spring's first great record. From the opening number, "He Do The Police In Different Voices," where Scott sings, "Maybe the plants and birds and rocks and things could justify my day," you know it's going to be that kind of record. And, sure enough, 10 minutes later, every bud of that promise has blossomed into a fluorescent bouquet.
Song of the year so far? Well, with an opening like line "It was a groovy day for a suntan drenched in citrus-sweet West Coast harmonies, it has to be "Take Me Down," which does that thing that every astonishing pop song has ever done since the dawn of creation.
So you're sat there thinking the chorus can't possibly live up to the promise of these verses, and then it stops momentarily in that way that songs do when they're about to enter the chorus, but it goes into another verse. And you think, "THEY'RE TEASING US!" But eventually they unleash it and, before you know it, a whole week has passed and you're still humming it.
And it's a trick that Miller repeats with nonchalant regularity, as song after song comes tumbling in, each of them smothered by tunes that delight you so profusely that you are helplessly possessed by the sudden urge to run along Oxford Street randomly Tango-ing people
If you ever thought The Byrds' version of "Mr Tambourine Man" surpassed Dylan's, or that Lemonheads' recent album was good when it might have been astounding, or understood why Liza Minelli spelt it with a zee and not an "s", then you won't fail to adore Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things.
And if you didn't, you've got a lot to catch up on. But don't worry. The Loud Family will teach you everything.
America's favorite dysfunctional television family (remember the classic Saturday Night Live skit?) meets the highbrow rock of Scott Miller. It's a newer, bigger, grander Game Theory, another permutation of vivid, challenging literary romanticism from one of the more successful graduates of the Davis, California, underground scene.
While Hunting Game, Meantime, True West, Suspects and other bands flashed and burned, Game Theory kept on shining through many albums, many personnel changes, and one leader. Though he may call this band the Loud Family now, this is just another version of the continuing Scott Miller project.
Although some old names are along (Jozef Becker on drums, Gil Ray on recorder and temple blocks), the new guys provide Miller with fancy playing muscle. They color the songs and elaborate arrangements with dazzling fingerpicking (Zachary Smith), swirling keyboard accents (Paul Wieneke) and intrepid bass (R. Dunbar Poor). Producer Mitch Easter is back with his inventive gloss.
It all adds up to more: more lumbering affection ("Rosy Overdrive"), more vivid Donovan-Marc Bolan hippie dip singalongs ("Inverness"), more bitter celebrations that make one first cheer then feel guilty ("Idiot Son"). Miller's songs have hooks and enigmas; he's even brazen enough to give a song the same title as T.S. Eliot's first draft of "The Wasteland," before Ezra Pound's famous revision.
If Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is about anything, it's about how complex pop can get and still have that crazy beat.