Have you ever looked at someone at your workplace and sort of examined him or her, looking for the traits that make them promotable, wondering what they have that you don’t? Yeah, you’re thinking about that person right now, aren’t you? They always seem to get the last cup of coffee without bubbling up a new brew, and no one but you notices. How are they so effortlessly GOOD while also so careless in their day-to-day activities? (Whereas YOU make coffee three times a day, and no one gives a steamy SHIT.)
Fellow indie-rockers, it’s time to start studying Plates Of Cake, because they have It, and for the most part, you Don’t. Then again, as with the ladder-climbing prototype above, it might be impossible to glean what renders Pla-Cay so superior, partly because what they’ve harnessed with their self-titled (debut? I certainly know nothing of any previous work) album a perfect balance of melody, irony, blue-collar wishing, common-man ruminating, gruffness, and perpetual doubt. It’s intimidating how confident vocalist/guitarist Jonathan Byerley is in his own, self-deprecating skin, how eager he is to show the warts of his personality for all to gawk at, like Bukowski naked from the waste down, stuck head-first in a trash can while Los Angeles street life swirls around him.
I took my time writing this review, believe-me-you — I wasn’t going to praise Plates of Cake to the SKY the STARS and the HOLY GHOST without listening to it over and over, making sure it wasn’t somehow screening out my critical powers with one of those tricks where you listen to the album the first/second/third time, put it down for a spell, then pick it back up and find there’s something integral missing, a trait or detractor you missed while drunk or whatever else, stomping around your hardwood-floor place with your wife and daughter singing along to the lyrics: “I am a waiter on a private yacht/ Look at all the faces and I want what they’ve got.”
Again, it’s effortless yet so improper upon first listen, like hearing Dylan’s yowl or Jonathan Richman’s mouth-farts for the first time; sucking them up, blowing them out, then figuring out if the whole creation is for you or not. Assessing the “scene” and finding it to be a comfortable place to wait idly while life swallows you whole and sticks its warm, sticky, mealy tongue in your ear.
This is why art is magical: It has a way of evening things out for the Rest Of Us. Byerley is so utterly aware of his averageness he has managed to become GREAT through that very awareness — and for many reasons. For one, his uncouth BARk is, as I mentioned, so distinctive. He sounds like a motherfucking Muppet, truth be told, but a weathered, old-timer Muppet who has been on the road too long. He sort of sounds like Seth Rogen circa Knocked Up, at the part where the mushrooms consume him and Cirque De Soleil becomes too much for him. Is this making sense? I’m doing my best here — YOU try pinning a tail on such a precedent-less donkey …
His lyrics are as idiosyncratic and distinctive as his voice. “Thrown into the night/ Look into their faces, and try to catch their eye/ And my face will be painted with the coals of the night/ And my face will be painted with the coals of the Night.” Maybe not life-shattering when isolated on their own, yet these very lines are pieces of a wonderfully simple, albeit elusive, formula that carries Plates Of Cake — like a piece of sponge on a fancy dinner tray at a crowded winter’s ball — through the entire record. Not a single song fails, not a single moment is misplaced.
And that guitar interplay … I’m not sure who’s playing those lead lines — it could be Byerley, could be Joshua Carrafa, could be Gann Mattews — but they’re of the sort that wrap around your brain like a giant octopus, eventually crushing you to death. This is the beginnings of a Paul Maroon-type talent (Maroon’s the guitarist from The Walkmen, if you must know), and it’s all accomplished without a scrap of the music-conservatory high-mindedness that ruins so many of NYC’s leading indie lights. This is rock ’n’ roll for latenight cab rides, rainy mid-day skies, blinking lights, almost-gone well drinks, cocktail napkins with phone numbers written in lipstick — this is The National if The National sounded like everyone says they do.
I can’t emphasize this enough: If you don’t check Plates Of Cake out, you will be sorry. Maybe not five minutes from now, maybe not in a day or two, but someday. This is where the whole ground-floor theory goes right out the window and I just recommend a record because it’s enriched my life like the hopped-up ale I often enjoy when I’m havin’ a piece. Truly soiled music, dove-like in its beauty and full of gritty fire and sore guts.
01. Living Winter
02. Emil the Soldier
03. Private Yacht
05. The Shining Path
06. A Band of Partisans
07. Old Debts
08. Leper Hill
09. This Way Not Some Other Way
10. Big Purse