Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Album Review: Quilt - "Plaza"

Boston psych-folks Quilt will release their third full-length album, Plaza, the follow up to Held In Splendor, on February 26.  The new album has been reported to be a culmination of thoughts and ideas from the band’s time spent on the road in 2014, which all came together for them during a few weeks they spent in Georgia. While they were touring North America, the band captured fragments of songs on voice memos and reel-to-reel tapes along the way. In Oregon, Quilt crossed paths with Matt Arnett, the man behind the “Quilts Of Gee’s Bend” traveling exhibit of quilts created by a group of women and their ancestors who live or have lived in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend along the Alabama River.  It's natural that a band named "Quilt" would want to see an exhibit of quilts when given the chance. 

What's surprising is that Arnett is also an indie music enthusiast and that he invited the band to Grant Park to record at his Grocery On Home, a tiny, nontraditional music venue that I for one had never heard of before but is apparently located in a former grocery store and that curates and hosts intimate performances of independent singer-songwriters.  Attendance is limited and most events are posted on Facebook; RSVPs are required.  Anyway, it was there that Quilt reworked those voice memos and traveling songs into the new album, Plaza

Plaza opens with Eastern-sounding lines from a sitar or a highly treated guitar to introduce the first song Passerby. The psychedelic flourish evokes the 60s pop of George Harrison Beatles' songs and the psych-folk of The Incredible String Band, and is a fitting intro for the mood and ambience of the rest of the LP.  The sound of this record would not have been out of place drifting out from the bay windows of a Haight-Ashbury Victorian during the Summer of Love, and one can hear traces of early Byrds and Surrealistic Pillow-era Jefferson Airplane.  The mood is maintained in Passerby by singer Anna Fox Rochinski's breathy vocals over unobtrusive, subtle flute lines before the song seemingly dissolves into a lovely guitar/sitar jam and then brings us back to Earth again with Rochinski's closing vocals.   

The second song, Roller, features a discordant but pleasant backdrop for Rochinski’s venting of frustrations about trying to maintain a relationship even while being a wanderer by nature. "I wrote it at my cottage in upstate NY, where I live alone," Rochinski told The Fader. "During the winter of 2015, which was long and snowy and often fell below zero degrees. Feeling stuck, frustrated with a partner or any kind of relationship, or just other people in general. Being a 'roller' to me is a sensation that lies somewhere between claiming strength for yourself and hiding to protect yourself from the human bullshit of the world. Ultimately, it's a rumination on seeking peace through isolation." You can feel her slip away as she sings, “Honey, I’m a roller underneath the coals that hide me when it’s raining/ How can you believe that everyone you meet is just here to entertain you?” The slightly surreal video for the song is full of bizarre imagery and includes choreographed dancing and a big bowl of Jell-O that hits the floor in slow-motion, and everybody in the band looks pleasantly buzzed.

The delicately arranged Eliot St. is the first single from Plaza.  Guitarist Shane Butler handles the vocals for this one, and the strum of Quilt's guitars and flowing strings romanticize his rueful lyrics about how we elude commitment so easily as the song meanders along at its own pleasingly languid pace.  Butler told NPR that the song is about his memories walking that Jamaica Plain street and calling his mother "to confess my troubles, triumphs and questions in life." 
"The first part of the song was written over a period of time in which I found myself isolated from the city I had lived in for years, entered an emotionally rocky relationship which slowly disintegrated, and experienced my mother's death. The choruses hover around the pain felt in moments of unknowing, feeling adrift and always 'one-step-away-from' the person or thing we wish to be close to. The bridge of the song serves as a devil's advocate of sorts; a wake-up call in the midst of despair. And the song's coda takes strength from the intention of the bridge to suggest a renewal, a 'second-wind', for a love once-lost."

Hissing My Plea features a funky groove and start-and-stop rhythm that reminds the listener that Plaza isn't a 60s nostalgia album but a modern work of art by modern artists.   Those voice-memo song fragments must have been documenting the entire 50-year history of psychedelic folk-rock from the harmonies of Gram Parsons and of David Crosby up to the freak-folk of early Animal Collective.

Album closer Own Ways may be one of the most fun songs on the album and one I'm really anticipating hearing performed live. Shane Butler's vocals ride over reverb-heavy guitar lines sounding more like Velvet Underground than the West Coast/Laurel Canyon touchstones throughout much of the LP.  The guitars are more aggressively electric than before and the song adds layer on layer as it builds to a loud and satisfyingly hard-rocking climax, a near-perfect ending to a fine album.  It would make a great way to end a set.

Quilt will be performing with Sweden's Dungen at The Earl on March 8.

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