Voice can be everything. It can bring the listeners in or turn them away. It can blend with the music or (for better or worse) stand apart. Look at Cake. That band’s rhythmic rigidity provides a natural background for singer John McCrea’s sarcastic, plainspoken delivery. Closer to the genre of Rock Plaza Central’s vocal work is John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, whose nasally anti-melodic tone has become a trademark.
Chris Eaton, singer of Rock Plaza Central faces a difficult challenge: how to reconcile his voice (nearly exact to Darnielle’s in timber and close to McCrea’s in delivery) with the robust, grand-country orchestration of his band, resulting in something new: a musical meeting rather than a clash. It’s a challenge that too often is not met on Are We Not Horses, Rock Plaza Central’s second LP (which is to be re-released by Yep Roc on April 17).
That Horses is a concept album about mechanical equine in something of a post-apocalyptic state where they’re forced to confront issues of mortality is, despite its seemingly amazing premise, a detriment on several fronts. Eaton sings the album’s opening lines, “My convictions propel me with great force/ They keep me on course/ So I can cross that line” (from “I Am An Excellent Steel Horse”), over a gradually building melody, full of big cymbal crashes. But great heights remain in the distance, and the music is never fully given room to expand and climax the way an Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene song of a similar makeup would. And with the refrain of the song’s title guiding the song, the emotional fronts the band pushes for are stifled by what, by the end of the first song, is already a childish theme. Wild horses, maybe. But steel?
Less analyzing is needed for “How Shall I to Heaven Aspire?” and “Are We Not Horses?,” on which Eaton’s vocals, despite the best attempts of the band, are disjointed and grating and stand out only to distract. Still, there’s an endearing humanity to be found in spots. A robust horn section and background chants add a loose, celebratory texture to the otherwise street-corner Krishna feel of “My Children, Be Joyful.” “When We Go, How We Go (Part 1)” is a quiet masterpiece-small-scale beauty marked by repetitive acoustic guitar and Fiona Stewart’s pleasing, accompanying violin. When Eaton lets the scratch into his voice near the end of “Fifteen Hands,” he brings the listener in to a very particular musical scene: an antiquated film scored with an Eastern-European dirge of horse-clops and a single violin. This twisted beauty of the title’s pun is not lost, either.
But character study in literature does not always translate to music, and again the split between vocalist and band becomes a difficult divide. While Eaton is a published, successful author-he has two acclaimed novels, The Inactivist and The Grammar Architect-a lyric such as “We’ll make love ’til the lights go out/ We’ll make love ’til the lights burn out/ When electricity fails us/ We’ll make love with the lights out” (“8/14/03”) may have looked better on the page; here, not even a rousing attempt at a sing-along can salvage it. “We won’t stop running ’til we get to the lights/ When we get to the lights we’ll stop running,” from “We’ve Got a Lot to Be Glad For” repeats the sentiment, and, even in its simplicity, sounds anything but carefully crafted.
Ultimately, the nature of the album, illuminated by the chanting refrain of the title in “We’ve Got a Lot to Be Glad For,” is one of celebration. But the size of the band doesn’t make them powerful, and too often the mentality of the musical collective, while it can be rousing to listen to, is one of inclusion: Everything is played, nothing is focused on.