The Laurels: Plains
- When we received the Laurels' EP Mesozoic, this time last year, hype had already been building for the Sydney quartet. A great live reputation and some serious endorsements from serious folks were greasing the wheel for sure. However, the psych-shoegaze drenched sounds of that record got the ball rolling in earnest. The countdown to their debut full-length Plains has been fraught with increasing excitement. That kind of anticipation can, of course, be a two-edged sword and so, when I got my hands on the disc in question I was a little tense. I happened to cast my eyes over their presser before I pressed play and read the following: "Whilst notoriety as a floppy haired sonic assault machine was flattering, it felt incomplete to the band, and instilled the desire to showcase their songs as they were meant to be heard." I don't know about you, but for me the tension just increased.
For quite some time I've felt that one of the strongest proponents of innovation in modern music is broken-ness. Kids who take on instruments and machines that, to use as originally intended, require great skill and learning, bugger it horribly because they have neither and yet, in any number of cases turn out music that is exceptional. Not least because they often do things with their gear that are quite unexpected. The example of Chicago Footwork hip hop is becoming a little overused, and indeed you can see this sort of thing happening everywhere; Canada's Grimes captured it perfectly when talking about her last album: "Not knowing how to play music is my greatest asset. I try to imitate things, and I fail horribly, and then it's just... something different." Neato. There is a problem with this approach to music making, I mean other than that, to produce one Grimes you requre 99 other musicians misusing their instruments and producing music which is not only broken, but sounds ... really broken. No the problem I'm referring to is when these mutant musos try and get it right. It usually happens just after their breakout record, when there's a little more money floating around. The kids now have the ability to buy flash new equipment and the expertise to use it, letting them accurately create the sounds they were going for in the first place, or, worse, allowing some experienced producer to lean over their shoulder and say, "no, you want to do it like this." As I'm sure you've encountered yourself, on any number of occasions, the results are frequently much less exciting than what came before.
I read a great quote from Caitlin Welsh, writing in The Brag: Shoegaze is the pizza of guitar rock - even when it's mediocre, it's still pretty good, and when it's done well, it's fucking transcendent." Touche, alright, back to The Laurels, ay? Welsh's quote captured neatly how I felt about their Mesozoic EP. People mention My Bloody Valentine and others, but, for me, The Laurels channelled the sound of those Oxford hypno-merchants Ride. Specifically, the marriage of the lazy, medicated vocals of Luke O'Farrell and Piers Cornelius and the near physical wall of guitar they constructed, made it seem like 1992 again. As I'm sure you've guessed by now, Plains is a bit of a different proposition. Although the same producer who worked with them on Mesozoic, Liam Judson, is on the boards again for this, the sound the band have opted for is not the same. The shoegaze has been sharply restrained, the wall-of-noise is just gone. In place of that fuzzy monstrousness a much more cleanly deliniated psych-rock makes its presence felt. I mean, it's psych so the sound is till plenty head-messing, but shoegaze it ain't.
It isn't fair to judge this based purely on what it isn't, I know, so when I got over my disappointment I tried to do that. You know what? It's actually pretty good. The band give you both barrels, striaght-up: both of the singles we've heard so far, Tidal Wave and Changing The Timeline come surging out. It may be a way of acclimatising folks with their new sound, both are deceptively close to their old way of doing things: thicker and heavier in guitar texture than anything else on the record. Just to make sure you get a good dose the album version of Tidal Wave is in long form: six and a half miasmic minutes. After that though, the haze lifts. A track like This City Is coming Down is less Ride and more Spaceman 3 or Spiritualized. Ironically, the track Mesozoic (which didn't appear on the EP) is positively upbeat, lifting it's dancing shoes out of the sucking fog of psych, shaking off the gunk and having a bit of a boogy. The more I listen to Plains, the more I think I understand the path The Laurels have taken, trying to strike a balance between the 'sonic assault machine' of their past and something just a bit more easy-going that may open them up to a wider audience in the future. The resulting record is, dammit, nuanced, no matter how much I just want to say 'gimme my damn shoegaze back'. Again, peevishly I want to say that the best bands don't make compromises, but, if you're going to make one, The Laurels, much as their name suggests, have made one that is likely to be a bit of a win.
- Chris Cobcroft.