The Plum Magnetic - Terra Animata
Release Date: February 23, 2013
Record Label: Self-Released
For all of the Plum Magnetic’s exotic sources of inspiration (“African, Reggae, and Afro-Cuban styles” and “the structure of Indian classical music” are just a few of the foundational sounds the group claims to be capturing here), the music on the group’s debut full-length – an interesting record called Terra Animata – feels remarkably accessible. As someone whose been exposed a bit to the aforementioned “structure of Indian classical music” – including concepts of the “tala” and “raga,” which are the rhythmic and melodic patterns often utilized by classical Indian composers – I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the form. However, “Trece Leches” the proper opening track of Terra Animata actually sounds nothing like the compositions I heard in my Non-Western Music class. Instead, the song is a jazzy free-form shape-shifter, morphing from acoustic slow-burn to classic rock jam session to banjo-infused alt-country to the coastal sounds of Cuban steel drums. It’s a fascinating exploration of different sounds, and while it isn’t immediately melodic or “catchy,” it offers an interesting exercise in picking out different and disparate sonic fragments.
“Trece Leches” is a completely instrumental track, as is “Spring,” the brief intro track that precedes it. For a moment, it feels like Terra Animata is going to remain in that vein for the long haul, as a pleasantly improvisatory exercise in instrumental jazz fusion. “Sweet Confusion,” however, which plays up the band’s reggae influence, shatters that illusion. Let me preface this next section of my review by saying that I have always been immensely unimpressed by reggae as a genre, and this track is no exception. I think the general tropes of the genre (the lazy vocal delivery, the simplistic and undemanding musical structures, the generic rhythmic skank) are extremely limiting, and I’m probably one of the few guys who changes the radio every time Bob Marley comes on for those reasons. “Sweet Confusion” isn’t without its charms – there’s a muddy guitar breakdown midway through that recreates the magic of “Trece Leches” – but Plum Magnetic can’t rise above the overused generic elements of reggae as a whole. The song is a dud.
Trent Ciolino stays off the microphone for most of what remains of the record, and the songs benefit from granting guitarist Andrew McLean center stage. Case in point is “SheshBesh,” which essentially just gives McClean seven minutes to jam an extended guitar solo. Subtle drum work from Oliver Burke (who anchors the album throughout) – as well as some tasteful jazz bass grooves from Jon Soloman, the band’s other member – effortlessly turn the song into the album’s highlight. Some interesting rhythmic upheavals near the end of the song render it even more interesting, while the production makes it sound like it could have come from a Hendrix live album. The song is not a dud.
From there, the album flits back and forth between showcases for McLean's playing in arenas both electric (“Parallax,” “Terra Animata”) and acoustic (“The Delicious”). The playing is always well-rendered, and the compositions and arrangements are always interesting, but it’s hard not to grow a little fatigued by the end of the record. Half of the songs on Terra Animata extend past the nine-minute mark, and while their shape-shifting nature keeps them compelling and sonically pleasing throughout, the songs are also so ambitious and so difficult to get a hold on that Terra Animata probably won’t turn out being a record that I patronize with a lot of repeat visits. Still, it’s got some of the best guitar work I’ve heard on any album this year and more than its fair share of entrancing musical structures. With a stronger vocalist – I kept yearning for a Justin Vernon type, especially on folk-tinged numbers like “The Delicious” – these guys could easily make an indie classic.