"The learning's in the losing, and you're better off just burning some bridges," sings Plants and Animals singer-guitarist Warren Spicer in "Song for Love." More condolence than advocacy, it's the signature song on the Canadian trio's new third album, The End of That.
As you've undoubtedly inferred, it's a breakup album, but also the most accessible release to date by the quirky, roots-tinged prog-popsters. Spicer and drummer Matthew Woodley have been playing together in a succession of bands since they were 12. They attended Concordia University together, where they met guitarist Nic Basque, and formed Plants and Animals in 2002. Though they were initially beguiled by out-there music, they eventually found their way down from the ivory tower and into the real world.
"We were pretty concerned with wanting to be experimental and heady," says Woodley. "I don't think it was bad — it had lots of moments, but then we moved in a more populist direction. We kind of got over ourselves a bit."
Of course, they only came closer to pop. Even the latest release only migrates from the outlying exurbs to the suburbs of indie pop — it's still an idiosyncratic mix. That's why their 2008 full-length debut, Parc Avenue, was such a sensation. Its odd eclecticism ranged from 7-minute barefoot folk-prog ("Faerie Dance") to swelling, choir-laden orchestral pop ("Bye Bye Bye") and spunky Afrobeat freak-outs ("Mercy"). It proved an immediate sensation and was nominated for Canada's Polaris Prize, awarded for the best Canadian-based release of the year.
Their follow-up ode to the boulevard of broken dreams, La La Land, missed the sophomore slump, but perhaps got a little caught up in the studio trickery. It was still catchy, but while less expansive, the production was much thicker. The trio sought to create a more immediate, less fussy album with The End of That.
"On La La Land we got a little carried away with tones," says Woodley. "The guitar players used a lot of different guitars and effects. I used different drums and cymbals — not that anyone notices that but other drummers. This time the focus was more on the songs."
They demoed extensively and, unlike with the prior two releases, had everything sussed out before they hit the studio. To record it, they traveled to France, where a fan of their music had cut them a deal to record in his chateau/studio for two weeks. The idea was to pursue a live vibe as much as possible.
"It was about simplicity, directness and cohesion," Woodley continues. "We wanted it to sound like a record from beginning to end and not a whole lot of different composite parts. We wanted to catch us on the floor — three people playing our instruments and singing without taking too much advantage of overdubbing technology."
Their approach resulted in Plants and Animals' most instantly enticing music to date. They've always demonstrated a knack for finding the hooks and pop sensibility within their weirdness, but the nuance, breadth and oddness took time to sink in. Earlier songs tend more to be earworms. Here they grab you by the lapels and shake you, whether it's the groovy funk-punk "Crisis!," the driving, two-and-a-half-minute rocker "Why and Why (Not)" or the terrifically slow-burning Crazy Horse-ish rumble of closer "Runaways."
"It's sort of a driving-down-the-road-rocking song," says Woodley of the latter track. "I think it's kind of appropriate for an album called The End of That not to have a maudlin ballad at the end, because it's not really about an ending, is it?"
This tour will feature another new element: a bassist. After playing a few low-key shows prior to the new album's release with bassist Eric Digras, a longtime friend from the Montreal scene, Plants and Animals decided to make it an ongoing situation. As you might imagine, the drummer's ecstatic.
"It's nice to be a part of a rhythm section and not the lone drummer," Woodley says. "It's cool because we've made three albums without a bassist, but there's been a lot of compensation. Now that he's there, we can all relax and play. Warren on the rhythm guitar doesn't have to be strummy all the time, and finally, what's wrong with some low frequency?"
Leave it to Plants and Animals to put their own spin on something we've known for years.
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