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Plush - Underfed

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Artist: Plush

Album: Underfed

Label: Sea Note

Review date: Jan. 24, 2005

We music fanatics love our historical revisionism; the ceaseless Dylan and Grateful Dead bootlegs, the masterpiece followed by the emotionally cracked anti-masterpiece, alternate versions of classic records, off-hand studio recordings… The artists in question, reaching the point at which exposure of their unreleased documentation should reveal them as all-too-human and open to slingshots, find themselves conversely masked yet again as beyond-human. An edifice of aura builds around the trials and tribulations of that lost recording. And for anyone horrified by the way reissue culture repeatedly steals away their ability to imagine the great lost album that never was, or the missing cut that placed the whole album in a new context, well, there’s always Smile… Or, uh, rather, was, given that most green of mytho-poetic pastures was recently sculpted into final shape.

In an Invisible Jukebox session with Biba Kopf in The Wire No. 170, David Thomas of Pere Ubu concluded that Smile was “the only perfect record that was ever made, because it only existed in the imaginations of Brian Wilson’s fans… you would listen to all of the working tapes and you would assemble the perfect track from all these incomplete views of it in your head. And therefore it was perfect because it never existed.” And although I have no desire to continue harping on about Brian Wilson (here’s a parlor game for you: find a Plush review or article that doesn’t mention Wilson in some way…), Thomas touches upon the crux of the matter vis-à-vis the collected works of Plush, a.k.a. Renaissance man Liam Hayes. The devoted Plush fan (is there any other kind?) compulsively holds onto each Plush record - two 7”s, two CD-EPs, two albums, 26 songs in total - because Hayes repeatedly disappears back into his music. On his first single, “Found A Little Baby/Three-Quarters Blind Eyes,” he sounds so sleepy that he drops off in-between lush orchestration; the recording of “No Education,” his second single, was so ghosted and evacuated that the entire band appeared as apparitions, with Hayes whispering his vocals down a tin-can-and-twine studio set-up.

The first Plush album, More You Becomes You - recorded after a first, failed pass at the songs that comprise Underfed and its father recording Fed - is stripped bare, a man at a piano in a red wine haze, sending cold smoke reels from keys, hammers and strings. The appearance of a lone French horn ringing through “Save the People” was unsettling because it sounded even more subtracted than Hayes’ solo performances. All throughout More You Becomes You, you’re wondering if Hayes is going to make it to the end of the album, or whether he’ll slip quietly between the velvet-red curtained backdrop, without you noticing…gone, forever. And if you run with Thomas’ theory, More You Becomes You comes close to being the perfect album. In various interviews, Hayes intimated at full orchestral arrangements for the album, suggesting the listener imagine an ‘invisible orchestra’ on the record. Talk about a metaphysics of presence…

When Hayes’ second album, Fed, appeared in 2002, released only in Japan after protracted periods of recording, arrangement, scoring, re-recording, re-re-recording, and heavy financial burden, its excessive, voluptuous arrangements and bold, brassy songs felt like the antithesis of More You Becomes You. The mythology built around the recording process led some to believe that Hayes was a misfit genius: there’s a kernel of truth in there, although he’s far from a slacker in the studio - Fed attests to hard labor and long hours - and the two times I met Hayes, he was courteous and charming, if not exactly forthcoming. Fed’s expense denied it release in America and England (where both Domino and Drag City, perhaps understandably, baulked at the album’s licensing fee) and for those unwilling to search the album out it became something of a legend - not so much the ‘album that never was,’ as Hayes was always working away at the record, but the ‘album that’s never been heard.’ But mystique is only so useful: you try paying the bills on aura alone.

Underfed is the clutch notes for Fed. Compiled from the extensive recordings that constituted Fed’s second pass, overdubbed with mellotron and keyboards for arrangement purposes, it sheds light on the process behind the final album without surrendering one iota of its power or mystery. Underfed is more notable for what it’s not. It’s not a completely different version of Fed, and it’s not a particularly revelatory experience, but it is a comforting one. (The pocketbook psychoanalysts among us will be left proclaiming ‘there was method behind the madness.’) If anything, it’s a simple pleasure: hearing one of the past decade’s most inspiring song suites before Hayes laid on the brass and strings. A few songs gathered sweeter flourishes on Fed, and Underfed contains a nine-minute extrapolation of the introduction to the title track (called, with delightful appositeness, “Fed Intro”); that’s all the ‘extra’ you’ll be getting.

There are surreal moments on this record that bring the real world to bear on Hayes’ vision. At one point, either Steve Albini or Bob Weston (the album’s engineers) comments on a flubbed lyric, and the perfectionist Hayes is quietly, humorously, hung out to dry. A drowsy performance of “No Education” is accompanied, somewhat inexplicably, by radio interference broadcasting Destiny’s Child’s “Bug-A-Boo” through one channel. The only startling change comes with “Blown Away”, which is peeled back to an acoustic guitar, piano, and thick harmonies from Hayes, who sounds closer to the walled-in cry of Lennon’s few good solo recordings than ever before. Hayes’ side-men, Rian Murphy and Matt Lux, bring an intuitive intelligence to bear on the songs, coasting over one of the few minor failings of the final Fed recording, an occasional stiffness in performance. And the songs… well, they’re as good as ever: Hayes is revealed again as one of the few songwriters who can evoke a certain period and genre of music without reducing the songs to mere period pieces, who is able to reclaim some notional mantle of ‘classic songwriting’ while acknowledging the infinite flexibility of the pursuit, whose vocal and lyrical emotional tenor continually quavers between stridency and devastating melancholy.

By Jon Dale

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