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Plainsong - Plainsong

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Artist: Plainsong

Album: Plainsong

Label: Water

Review date: Jul. 19, 2005

In this time of reissues and MP3 blogs, the most scorned epochs of music history are up for a tranquil reevaluation. Take the easy-breezy California country of the early ’70s. Long mocked both by old-timey purists and Creemy folk-o-phobes, Cali country was egocentrically bastardized by the Eagles on its way toward New Nashville (think the Eagles with hats and accents), and its lost documents are only now being unearthed. For the sort of person hip to the melancholy that plagued the affable Dude in The Big Lebowski, California country's charm needs little explanation. And the Dude hated the fuckin' Eagles.

For the subgenre's furthest-out artifacts, see Yee Haw!: The Other Side of Country, a bizarre compilation from Germany's Normal Records spotlighting the warped innovations of Arlie Neaville and Peter Grudzien. To hear it at its cleanest and least self-indulgent, dig on this mammoth Plainsong compilation.

Like many of California country’s most focused purveyors, the dudes in Plainsong weren’t from California; they were from England. The band’s kingpin Iain Matthews once hobnobbed with Fairport Convention, and initially sought out Richard Thompson to aid in this project. Perhaps it's a good thing Thompson turned him down. As Thompson's chilly paranoia grew ever more extreme, Matthews and his compatriots put out crisp, melodic electric-folk warmer than anything Gram Parsons or Gene Clark was doing. (Among the bonus material lies a cover of Clark’s “Spanish Guitar,” which provides a point of comparison.)

Plainsong goes with what they know, and they know a lot. Much credit belongs to Matthews' expansive music library. With such an extensive consciousness of dusty Americana, Matthews could never’ve played it disrespectfully. Even on perky novelties such as “Truck Driving Man” and “Yo Yo Man,“ Plainsong sports neither a smirk nor a shit-eating grin.

Much of the reissue’s first volume consists of reverent covers, but a lovely, dulcimer-driven "I'll Fly Away" is its most familiar selection. The band also treats its now-forgotten contemporaries Paul Siebel ("Louise") and the Jerry Hester/Judy Henske out-folk juggernaut ("Raider," originally from the Farewell Aldebaran LP, which any label with ad space in Arthur is hereby advised to reissue).

Disc One resuscitates the album In Search of Amelia Earhart, born of Matthews’ fascination with the ill-fated pilot. Excepting his own “The True Story of Amelia Earhart” and a fleshed-out update of the Dillards’ “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” Matthews insists that none of the material deals directly with Earhart’s mysterious final voyage. Yet, it’s hard not to connect a few dots, even if they‘re but specks on the windscreen. It’s hard not to hear the ever-poignant “I’ll Fly Away” a bit differently. And it’s hard not to wonder how Plainsong, like Earhart, dropped so quietly off the radar. Especially when its best material was yet to emerge.

Disc Two recollects Now We Are 3, the group’s hitherto fore unreleased follow-up, and it‘s both sleeker and yards more explorative. Plainsong’s leaders, by this point, had come into their own as songwriters. Andy Roberts, the band’s other key member, wrote a bit of a Cali country caricature with “Urban Cowboy,” which distills the dislocated nature-boy stoner’s 20th Century pathos. Its conceit is almost laughable… that is, until the complex harmonies of its chorus gently knife through the smog of cynicism. That leads into Matthew’s jaw-dropper “The Fault,” which saddles Plainsong’s FM-ready professionalism with some of the heaviest of human emotions.

The band’s arrangement of the Association hit “Along Comes Mary,” which the members created as a dare to themselves, appears near the end, among a slew of bonus tracks. It links up Plainsong’s reconfigured traditionalism with the flaky Golden State pop that preceded it, to which it owed perhaps as much as it ever did to the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a nice li’l after-dinner mint, but way before it appears, Plainsong’s lost legacy has already been effectively enshrined. Three cheers to San Francisco's zeitgeist-proof Water Records for the legwork.

By Emerson Dameron

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