Lately, I’ve been struggling with the genre subclassification “power pop.” I never used to have this problem. In fact, for the longest time, I’ve been a defender of the terminology. I mean, how detrimental could it be?
In the grand scheme of things, not at all, but when you start inquiring what the term evokes to other critics and some listeners, the responses are worrisome: happy, horny, and frivolous. Most artists won’t mind the first term, and are sanguine to the second term. It is what it is. But that third term…frivolous? Work on a batch of songs for a year (at least) and then reckon with the frivoloty of your efforts. You’ll change your mind.
So in my mind, it might be time to step away from the term and reclassify this music what it is and has always been — rock. Attitude? Guitars? Maybe an agenda? Yes, yes, and we’ll see.
This brings us to Plasticsoul and their new album Therapy. It’s been some time since we’ve heard from the group (see 2005’s Pictures from the Long Ago and 2009’s Peacock Swagger), but time has not diminished the snarl behind the smile. Plasticsoul still has the wherewithal to kick you in the butt.
The group is led by Steven Wilson, and I suppose I have to provide a qualification at this point. This is not the Steven Wilson that led the band Porcupine Tree and co-created Blackfield, and yet both Wilsons synthesize the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s in modern ways. For Plasticsoul, the combination of the singer/songwriter ethos with the heavier sides of Big Star and The Byrds find Wilson in similar company with Michael Penn and Matthew Sweet, just to name two other artists who have needed to assert their seriousness against their own ornate melodicism.
And Plasticsoul is serious, even when they’re being playful as on the track “The Girl of Many Tribes” which mixes up sitar and tabla with mariachi horns and a samba beat. Similar exotic touches set the gorgeous “Babylon” alight. The beautiful but harrowing “My Heavy Soul” opens the record like a confessional, with Wilson wearily reckoning “It’s been three weeks since the relapse and all I’ve got is my heavy soul” to an acoustic guitar, restrained cello, and a low choir of vocal harmonies. “All Died Pretty” sneers to big, jangly guitars, handclaps, and lyrical malevolence.
None of this should dissuade anyone who is thinking “arty-farty” because, at the core, this remains a rock record to reassert my original statement. “In Her Raincoat” is flat-out gorgeous with a pitch-perfect guitar solo at the bridge. If you’ve been starving for something reminicent of The Knack during the Zoom era, this song will set you up just right. “Monkey On A Stick” is a punk song, whether anyone dares to classify it as such or not and is a kerosene-torching showcase for Wilson, bassist Marc Bernal, guitarist Daniel Conrad, and especially drummer Steve Markowicz who summarily beats the hell out of his kit.
Plasticsoul has survived on the fringes for a while, so you can be forgiven for not having heard of them until now. But do yourself a favor and don’t deprive yourself of Therapy, which will surely end up as one of the best rock records of 2017.