As Fast As: Destroy the Plastique Man

Seek and Destroy

As Fast As pull out their Plastique

It’s an unpredictable world we live in. The Red Sox keep winning the World Series, a Canadian dollar is now worth more than our pathetic greenback [this originally ran in 2008, height of the financial crisis], and that hack from American Idol, Daughtry, is among the best-selling rock acts in the world. Now I find there isn’t a single giant pop-rock singalong on the new As Fast As album.

What is the world coming to?

Well, it turns out Spencer Albeee and company have traded in their standard McCartney-Wings pop for a ’70s style more informed by the Bay City Rollers, the Bee Gees, and Yes, in the process knocking out something of a concept album. Destroy the Plastique Man is the band’s first since parting ways with Octone/A&M Records, with which the band released only 2006’s Open Letter to the Damned, an update of the band’s local debut by the same name in 2004. However, combined with Albee projects the Popsicko (self-titled, 2001) and Rocktopus (I Love You! Good Morning!, 2002; Something Fierce, 2003), which featured pieces of the current AFA lineup, there is a five-album track record of big, singalong choruses, cheery piano parts, and loud guitars that might lead one to expect more of the same.

As Fast As prove here, though, that history is a poor predictor of future performance. Penned by Albee, the tunes here still largely conform to pop songwriting convention, with verse-chorus-bridge construction, but the chords are less than bright, virtually every instrument sports a digital buzz, and the time signatures aren’t always 4/4. Albee has shown an inclination for the dark before — this is, after all, the guy who wrote: “Maybe you love me/ Maybe I’m a monkey/ Maybe you’re just bored with a belly full of drinks, so you want to take me home and fuck me” — but he never before seemed so interested in making you uncomfortable, poking you in the ribs with contrapuntal notes instead of rubbing your belly with major-chord melody.

As for that concept, the album basically details the psychedelic wanderings of Albee alter-ego Aaron (it’s his middle name, and the middle name of guitarist Zach Jones and bassist Pat “Hache Horchatta” Hodgkins, as well), who wakes up to crickets and loons in the 30-second opener and seems to be the Plastique Man of the title track, wondering: “Can I finally learn to love myself?” You want to talk ’70s? The opening of that title track apes Frampton’s whole talking-through-the-guitar thing, but actually makes it a melodic and workable chorus, “I don’t know what the meaning of tomorrow is/ But I know what it is to take the fall,” juxtaposed with Albee’s normal-voiced narrative verses: “He’ll destroy the plastique man/ Then he’ll learn to love again.”

I’ll leave the psychoanalysis for you armchair types out there, but I’ll tell you the digital laser beams that shoot through the song, paired with chords that punch like a Brahms string section and the ghost of a violin, build tension here in all the right ways (guest spots here include Stu Mahan, John Maclaine, Dominic Lavoie, DJ Moore, Aren Sprinkle, Jay Villani, Holly Nunan, Angela Doxsey, Dave Noyes, Emily Dix Thomas, and Garry Bowcott — I’m not going to parse them all).

This is definitely a headphones album. A rocket launch races around the channels in “Homewrecker,” where Aaron “can be good/ I can be pure/ I can convince you if you’re not sure.” Then an electric guitar builds late over sampled shouts and yelling, before Albee upgrades the chorus with a yelled high harmony and some trumpet or trombone. This is Pet Sounds pop, with doubled and tripled vocals, but devoid of the syrup that infuses Smile.

Digital loops, sometimes seeming aimless, often pop up in the left channel without warning. Basses are always fuzzed and thrumming. Keyboard solos sometimes are so affected it’s hard to perceive the tone. Pair those with handclaps for percussion, lush vocal harmonies, and beautifully crafted rhyming verses, and it can be sometimes difficult to find your bearings, but Albee’s doing that on purpose and it’s a good thing.

“Sleighjacking” is a deliciously odd Christmas tune, with a Latin beat tied to a Kingston Trio delivery. “Your Lips to G-d’s Ears” is like a heavy rock tune without the guitars and a lyrical device where Albee repeats the last couple words of each line: “I got hot dripped juices on my chin, on my chin/ I see slap-shot pretty shaking in, shaking in/ I shake my head, cuz bitch trashed mommy, shakin in, shakin in.” And then the chorus is so sweetly delivered, “I know just what you’re going through,” a move from indifference to empathy.

“Somebody’s Fool” is where things run disco, full on glitter ball, like what you’d hear on the new Taylor McFerrin (yep, Bobby’s son) album.

Finally, there is the “single,” which is greatly matured and nuanced compared to “The Single,” that triumphantly graced the Popsicko album. “Dancing a Murderous Tango,” gracing the airwaves on WCYY, opens with scritchy fiddles, then a chugging guitar line paired with the bass. The “c’mon” that finishes each line of the verse recalls (Albee’s other band, maybe you’ve heard of it) Rustic Overtones’ “C’Mon” off Viva Nueva, and the back-and-forth in the verse perfectly mimics the lock-step of the tango: “You think it’s sad/ I think it’s funny … you say death/ I say destruction … You say purpose/ I say function.”

Then there’s the big, expansive chorus, where Albee lets loose with all his chords will give him: “We’re dancing a murderous tango/ I’ll take your word/ Take me for everything.” He’s opened himself up laid himself bare. Take it and do with it what you will.

An Overnight Low: Euston

Last train outta Euston

Part one, from Chad Walls’ An Overnight Low

Chad Walls is a guy who’s still dedicated to the album format. Like Zach Jones and his Days, he wants to tell you a story. It’s just that he’s decided to use a group of songs with which to do it.

As a narrative format, of course, the album lags behind the novel and the film, and it requires a bit more attention than either. Words are sort of important to stories, especially when you don’t have pictures, and the words of songs are meted out in phrases and abstracts. Sometimes with vocal delivery that makes them hard to make out. What is like a little movie to Zach Jones might be more of a general emotional impression to you. Like watching a movie on the bus to Boston while you’re listening to your own music and with the screen three seats up.

You get the general idea.

With Euston, Walls is writing and performing as the project An Overnight Low, for which he’s put together a live version and which involved a number of contributions from local session players gathered by Jonathan Wyman. And Euston is just the first album in a three-part project he’s got all mapped out, and much of it completed, documenting bits and pieces of his stay in Manchester, England, while he took three years to get a doctorate.

The ensuing work isn’t quite as cerebral as all that sounds, though. Walls is a pop-music guy and has been since he was writing songs with the boys in the Frotus Caper back in 2001. Thus, he tells his stories in sharp, three-minute chapters. The 10 songs on this first record are all done in less than 30 minutes.

He’s not nearly as manic and upbeat as the Frotus often found themselves, though. With an acoustic guitar strum as foundation, they are mostly more subdued. There is an alt-country weariness to much of it, fueled by the kind of nostalgia that can be induced by sifting through the detritus of three years abroad.

This is encapsulated most succinctly in “Terminal B,” a two-minute, transitional tune that’s just Walls, an acoustic guitar, and sparingly administered feedback. Like “Skyway” on the Replacements Pleased to Meet Me, your attention is drawn by the sparseness as Walls contemplates “songs on the backs of tickets” and the meaningless phrases of traveling: “Enjoy your stay, or welcome back.”

It’s the same kind of emotional impact as delivered by the album’s true standout, “London,” a tale of fleeting friendship and lives unraveling. The vocals are some of the highest on the album, making everything feel insistent and important, and Holly Nunan’s backing vocals weave behind the chorus – “least I remember it that way” – to emphasize the vapidity of the interaction.

She’s heard he’s been to London (no, it was Manchester, thanks), “how have you been? I think I lost your number.” Ouch. Were we close, once? It’s a truly arresting song, to make you think of those friends you were closest to, but don’t really have much in common with anymore.

Such are the songs that come with age and experience. Walls is no spring chicken anymore, and so songs like “The Artists in the Wrong World” have the benefit of perspective, of looking back. They also have the benefit of a lifetime of playing around with the song form, and so while you’re often expecting verse-chorus-verse-bridge, there are enough minor deviations to keep you interested.

That also means they can be pretty touchy-feely. “Halley’s Comet,” full of tambourine in the right channel, echoing backing vocals, and lots of splash cymbal late, is rife with foundational sentiment: “This is the place for me.” Same with “Sleeper,” which has its own echoing piece – “I’m not alone/ I am alone” – and closes with a somewhat mysterious repetition of “I don’t want to celebrate the Fourth of July yet.”

That’s what this album is about, though. Those life demarcations: weddings, funerals, holidays, meetings, and departures.

Like “Goodnight, Portland,” the most rock piece here, with a killer opening – “she’s just a first-draft drinker/ Who penned a paperback” – and a finish dripping with atmosphere and kick drum. The chiming electric guitar in the middle is like a second-hand ticking off time as rounds come and go at the bar, people and places come and go through your life.

Still, “that’s better than anything on the radio/ That’s better than anything underground.”