I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Comparing Rock Plaza Central to the Rock Bottom Remainders is kind of unfair. You may remember the latter band’s famous 1992 performance at the American Booksellers Association conference in Anaheim. Or you may have gotten your grubby little paws on the double album Stranger than Fiction, featuring several performances. Hell, they even played the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995. But what you’re probably wondering the most is, what in the name of Mike am I talking about? That’s a very astute question. You see, despite the fact that both bands begin with the word “Rock” (and what self-respecting band doesn’t want to be associated with that?), each is fronted by or consists of musicians that were, in a previous life, authors of fiction, etc. The Remainders feature a handful of AP rejects, essentially, in Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Maya Angelou, Mitch Albom, and Matt Groening. Here’s hoping you guys make it big one day! Rock Plaza Central features singer/songwriter Chris Eaton, a novelist in his spare time (or maybe music makes up the spare time – I don’t know, it’s not like I have a pie chart detailing Eaton’s waking hours – what do you want from me?), interestingly “covering” Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes like one would a song with his book Grammar Architect. I haven’t read either, so I couldn’t tell you how that works. I’m intrigued though.
Right, all preciousness aside – why is it unfair that I’m comparing these two? You guessed it (if you’ve got half a brain): The Rock Bottom Remainders are a glorified bar band, jamming out covers, and they can get away with it because of their name recognition and the fact that famous musicians sit in on their live sessions. It’s a funny little group with a funny little name, isn’t it? Rock Plaza Central, on the other hand, is an actual band from Canada, who actually release records and actually tour. They fall squarely in the alt-country/folk/indie realm inhabited by such luminaries as Jeff Mangum and his Neutral Milk Hotel, The Silver Jews, and John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats. In fact, I find that Eaton’s voice most closely resembles Darnielle’s, as his delivery is loud and up front, nasal, and probably none too distant from his speaking voice. The music has a decidedly Western feel to it, falling to either end of the dust-bowl minimalism/honky-tonk-infused rock spectrum – well, that is when the (European) East isn’t creeping in, a lá Devotchka.
What really separates this album from its stylistic contemporaries is its overarching story – you didn’t expect an album by a fiction writer that didn’t have some unifying theme, did you? This one’s pretty far out – according to the record’s allmusic.com page, Are We Not Horses is “a concept record about six-legged robot horses battling with the forces of good and evil.” Got it? Makes sense, then, that right out of the gate we get the shuffling acoustic bar blues of “I Am an Excellent Steel Horse,” followed by the gypsy-folk of “How Shall I to Heaven Aspire?”, in which our heroes are, shall we say, put out to stud. The major-key acoustic campfire hymn “My Children, Be Joyful,” with its jubilant refrain of “Be joyful, / my children, be joyful!” filling out its almost-six minute runtime, revels in the youth produced.
There’s not a lot of story involved, it seems, with the record, at least not that I could catch – this battle against the forces of good and evil alluded to by the allmusic reviewer is barely present, except hints perhaps on the title track: “I’ve seen horrible things / like a sea of white wings” could be the horses’ view of an army of spiritual beings coming to sack their land. But otherwise, we get several more Darnielle-ish pieces, all of them very good, well-written, and literate songs, such as “When We Go, How We Go” (parts 1 and 2), the brief “8/14/03,” and the awesome “Anthem for the Already Defeated,” the latter owing just as much to Man Man’s shambolic performances. Its defiant lyrics are shouted at oppressors, and it would do us all a bit of good if we commit them to memory to recite when the forces of evil are here for us: “They can take our bones and bury them / deep under the river, / but we’ll still be together, / and we cannot be defeated … They can take our fists and chop them / off at the wrist, / and we will shake our arms with bloody stumps / and we cannot be defeated.” That’s what I’m talking about. Double-fisted middle fingers. (Well, if the middle fingers were still attached.)
The song cycle ends with “We’ve Got a Lot to Be Glad For,” a beautiful folk meditation with lyrics touching on reminiscence at the moment of death, most likely with a valiant act and a violent end: “We won’t stop running ’til we get to the lights, when we get to the lights we’ll stop running. / And the lights, are like fiery knives. / Those candles burn with something we’ve got inside. / And you and I, we’ve got a lot to be glad for.” The last line is repeated in harmony until the end of the song, when the music drops out and the vocal is left on its own. It’s a haunting moment, and in it you really get the sense that the protagonists have loved and lost – whether they’re weird steel horses or they’re people like you or me (or Chris Eaton). We’ve got a lot to be glad for, indeed – I’m glad for this album, theme and all. Don’t judge me.
I’ll end with a couple more author/musician examples. My friend Ashim Shanker is a published author (Migrations Volume 1: Don’t Forget to Breathe), but he was a musician first. And as a member of underrated rock act Tetsuo’s Head, Shanker helped redefine the concept of rock bass, most notably in his composition “Binomial Nomenclature.” My friend Chris Evans is a published author as well (the Iron Elves series) … oh, but I guess he’s not a musician. Oh well. Shameless plug then.
RIYL: The Mountain Goats, Neutral Milk Hotel, Devotchka