Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble Plastic Bag in the Tree

[Hush; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: folk, indie-pop
Others: The Decemberists, Norfolk & Western, Black Moth Super Rainbow

Given my less-than-objective track record of Decemberists reviews, I wasn’t really surprised when I was sent Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble’s Plastic Bag in the Tree, as the band was founded by Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk. That being said, I set out to be as objective as possible while listening to it; it just wouldn’t be fair if I wrote another sprawling screed on something related to The Decemberists. If the album sucked, I was all geared up to let you know.

But it turns out that Plastic Bag is pretty good, objectively speaking of course. It sounds like you’d expect a Decemberists side project to sound, especially one that comes courtesy of the band’s former home of Hush Records. The album is filled with lively, sometimes disjointed folk-ish jams that seem just as much fun to make as they are to listen to. Which makes sense considering that, according to the press release, the band was started after Funk invited his neighbors over for “weekly living room hootnannys.”

You can get a good idea of the album’s sound just by looking at the large cast of characters on it: 15 people playing over 25 instruments, including a dog named fang who provides “interruptions,” creating something that isn’t so much a band as a makeshift living room orchestra. The album is filled with haphazard horns and all manner of guitars, banjos, lap-steels, and mandolins; there’s even an occasional synthesizer and xylophone. Alternating between jovial, bouncing ditties and lazy, aloof ones, the album's only major shortcoming is the periodic lack of variety. But even though songs start running together, the band does its best to switch it up with a few interesting cover choices.

FHPE’s interpretations of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and Radiohead’s “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” are less novelty than you might think. They’re just straight covers (sans vocals), but the band’s aesthetic is different enough from the originals that the songs turn out to be fairly interesting. The results are somewhere between a Jon Brion score and a Sufjan Stevens interlude. You get the feeling they chose the songs because they like them, not to impress anyone. It’s only natural that a band of friends coming together are going to try and play a few songs they all love, simply because they love them.

If Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble hunkered down and got serious, they could probably make a really good record. But then again, their lighthearted attitude seems to be the whole point. The record feels (accurately) like a bunch of friends coming together just to have some fun, and getting serious would betray that feeling. So for now, Plastic Bag in the Tree is a nice distraction that I’ll be playing with the windows open on those breezy summer nights. I might even invite some friends over.

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