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Liam Hayes and Plush - Bright Penny

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Artist: Liam Hayes and Plush

Album: Bright Penny

Label: Broken Horse

Review date: Nov. 30, 2009

Indie rock loves its visionaries for a while, but unless they end up making for a predictable course, it can be unforgiving – or simply forgetful. Liam Hayes, aka Plush, made a lot of noise back in 1994 when he released his first single, “Found A Little Baby” (on indie veterans Drag City), largely on account of its voluptuousness. It channelled much of what made orchestral 1960s pop great – think The Bee Gees, The Walker Brothers, The Millennium – into four minutes of perfection. Hayes was celebrated, particularly by the English music press, as an emissary from the past, an almost Marker-esque manifestation of aesthetic time travel. And getting anything from him in an interview was nearly impossible, as I can attest to, after one failed attempt in early 1998.

Since then, Hayes has taken the path less travelled, resulting in a few more singles, and two albums that never quite delivered on “Found A Little Baby”’s promise, even though they were fantastic documents in their own right. Even his ‘demos for a masterpiece’ were circulated a few years ago, suggesting that for Hayes, great work is never finished, rather abandoned. He has a hardcore of followers that greet sightings of the man with fanatical fervour, and a legend – probably incorrect – for reclusive and idiosyncratic behaviour. This is simply because he follows his musical fantasies semi-publicly, and issues no apologies.

Bright Penny is Liam Hayes’s third album proper and much like its predecessors, 1998’s More You Becomes You and 2002’s Fed, it’s an album that’s taken its time to be on speaking terms with reality. Hayes is a pop perfectionist and he’s willing to take both risks and time to make things right; hence the back story to Fed, an album so costly to record that it initially only saw release in Japan. But with Bright Penny, Hayes finally found the right support network, and you can hear the relative calm in the arrangements – neither naked like his debut, nor wonderfully overwrought like its follow-up, here Hayes gives every instrument space to breathe, while creating a beautiful group sound that moves with all the lithe grace of ‘70s soul sides.

Soul’s a good reference point for where Hayes’s head is now. It’s a music that balances economy of form with rich arrangements, but never to the detriment of the song. On the opening “Take A Chance” in particular, Hayes gets that balance right – beautifully bold brass pivots on a pedal-point bass line, before resolving to a resigned verse and gorgeously catchy chorus. “Look Up, Look Down” swaggers with a sultry confidence that Hayes has never really mastered before, as though he’s working moves at a late night revue. And while something like “White Telescope” comes close to jaunty, it’s saved by the strange ‘reserved joy’ in the performance, as though the Plush band are just about keeping themselves in check – standing on the verge of getting it on, in other words.

Records like this often fail when it comes to ballads, but Bright Penny pulls those off, too – just about. “I Sing Silence” and “If I Could” tread close to saccharine, but there’s enough bite in Hayes’s delivery to save them. “We Made It” is stronger, a sequel of sorts to songs like “Fed” or “What’ll We Do” from Fed, delivered with more ambivalence, and building to a stop-start crescendo that’s positively heady. The details are compelling too, from the harmonica shadowing the closing vocal lines, to the ringing triangle peals that punctuate the playing. There’s real warmth here, and contrary to some people’s opinions on Plush, “We Made It” is far from a genre exercise. It’s referential without being beholden to its history.

That’s not to say those commentators don’t have a point: at its least potent, Bright Penny risks lapsing into a platitudinous approach to soul and R&B formulae. But Hayes has often walked that fine line between form and content, and he always comes through with a flourish. Earlier Plush albums felt more like ‘statements’, but Bright Penny comes full circle to “Found A Little Baby” – it’s music borne of necessity, but delivered with ease. Hayes is free here to state the core of his songs simply. The result might be Hayes’s least remarkable record, in one respect. I suspect however, in the long run, it will turn out to be his best yet.

By Jon Dale

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