⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Wearing their love of American folk and bluesrock on their sleeves for the better part of twenty-five years, Plastic Sam doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel on Spectacular Aneurysm, their fifteenth studio release. Instead, the band seems more at home than they have in a long time just letting the songs be what they will. George West’s voice has never sounded more confident or so effortless. The album recalls long drives where the impetus is simply moving, a going for going’s sake, even if a destination is superfluous.
Effortless songwriting is usually anything but; in this case the band has stripped away all but the essence of each composition, leaving only hints of the skeletons beneath like ghostly afterimages. Almost entirely acoustic, the vibe is laid back retro smooth. Think Saturday afternoon at the beach and lazy Tuesdays in the park when cutting class made sense simply because it was a sunny day.
In “Train To Lisa,” West sings “the way ahead is dark but I see you in the light” which mirrors the optimism of “Circles,” a song about the revolving nature of life and love. Each member of the band has seen their share of success and tragedy and they’ve managed to use it both for inspiration and affirmation, like journalists on the road of life. Their actions and experiences become songs which in turn become blueprints for future storytellers.
As founding members of The Carters, guitarist Mick Antonio and keyboardist Jimmy Cooper took the dusty remnants of tie-dyed hippie rock and breathed new life into it. Their sound was old school but their influences were far ranging, touching on stark blues and jumpy bluegrass. That band enjoyed modest success but Antonio later revealed he felt hemmed in by the label and management. As a result he and Cooper left The Carters to form Plastic Sam with singer/lyricist West and drummer Bret Larche. Poorfolk bassist Link Donner was an old friend of West and the five hit it off, quickly booking gigs to try out the new material they were composing.
It was 2011’s Cotton that saw Plastic Sam first embrace electric guitars and mild distortion, giving its songs some punch and the band an expanded sonic pallet. The added volume and slight grit is still subtly contained, however; the band hasn’t let it take over their approach. Things continue to be soft and easy with an emphasis on harmony and mood, West’s voice as evocative as ever. His time-worn tones have a husky smoothness that can cut or caress with equal ease. The singer is an expert at manipulating his voice and these recordings take full advantage of his range of expression with uncluttered arrangements and minimal decoration. His harmonies with Cooper and especially Larche are pure ear candy, aching and yearning their way into your marrow.
“Uptown Party” recalls places where we don’t feel at ease, even when surrounded by friends. Fitting in never seemed a big part of the band’s agenda, as the slow, argumentative “Not My Thing” attests. If the band and their entire essence is out of date it doesn’t dampen their joy of performing any more than it detracts from the album’s songs.
The two punch of “Bring Me Home Now” and “Lovely” closes the album, successfully wrapping things up in a misty afterglow as genial piano balances lonely violin. When the last notes fade away it’s as if you’ve seen an old friend and maybe had one too many but you know you’ll sleep all the better for it.
Produced by Dandy Walker, Spectacular Aneurysm is more of the same from and another milestone for Plastic Sam, a timeless band with music that never grows old. Walker keeps the low key songs reined in, freeing them up to just be what they are: well crafted, easy going minor gems that won’t change the world. And that’s ok.