Listening to a band’s albums usually gives you most, if not all, of their story. Listening to a Tracy + the Plastics album is like listening to a movie without watching it at the same time.
Tracy + the Plastics creator and Bard College grad student Wynne Greenwood has put together a highly original project that makes for a fun live show. Greenwood performs as lead singer Tracy while pixilated keyboardist Nikki and drummer Cola (Greenwood in different wigs and costumes) provide support (or threaten to steal the show) from the large video screen behind her. When Tracy interacts and converses with her bandmates, the effect is both challenging and charming — Nikki and Cola question Tracy’s authority and their own places in the world as queer feminist artists and would-be theorists. And the result is a performance unlike any other you’re likely to see. The DVD packaged with Culture for Pigeon closes some of the gap between the experience of Tracy + the Plastics in your stereo and on the stage.
Still, Greenwood’s performance art wouldn’t be as appealing if the music couldn’t stand on its own, which it does, despite its beats-driven simplicity. Culture for Pigeon was recorded in Brooklyn with some bass and drum sounds provided by JD Samson (of Le Tigre) and Rachel Carns (of the Need). What’s most immediately noticeable about Culture for Pigeon is how different it is from the band’s first album, Muscler’s Guide to Videonics, released in 2001 on Chainsaw.
The stripped-down electronic instrumentation is familiar, but Culture is, as a whole, far less consistently danceable. Instead, many of the songs here have a slower, more restrained energy, the kind that Muscler’s Guide didn’t really suggest until its final track, “The Myth of the Front.” This approach serves to show off Greenwood’s powerful vibrato voice, which can be equally as effective at its hugest as at its most hushed. The warm, sing-song opener, “Big Stereo,” sets this tone for the rest of the album. “Happens” consists only of a single unadorned keyboard line and Greenwood’s thoughtful, resigned vocal; “Cut Glass See Thru” and “Oh Birds” are just as spare and poignant, featuring Greenwood’s voice over bass and Hammond organ, respectively. But there are also more upbeat songs. “What You Still Want” has an extremely catchy beat and chorus; “This Is Dog-City” and “Henrietta” boom with heavy, video game-esque noises.
The DVD’s two visual pieces incorporate bits and pieces of the songs on the album. The first piece, “We Hear Swooping Guitars,” is a fifteen-minute long exploration of Tracy + the Plastics’ band practice. Tracy tries to diplomatically cooperate with drama queen Nikki and somewhat disinterested Cola. Tensions grow, and an elephant obscures the screen until Nikki reveals that she and Cola feel the band’s name “upholds the historical hierarchy of a rock band.” Nikki then suggests that they change their name to “Big Mammoth” or “Woolly Mammoth.” “We Hear Swooping Guitars” is an example of the way that Tracy, Nikki and Cola would share space on a stage, discussing everything from lesbian visibility to each other’s musical skills (or alleged lack thereof).
I’m still not sure if listening to Tracy and the Plastics’ records could sell you on the band’s live show as well as the live show could sell you on their records. As Greenwood puts forward in one of her essays in the liner notes: “What happens when the video demands an audience’s interaction? When the audience can respond to video as a medium that exists in the same dimension of them, there will be a celebration.” The ideal way to experience Tracy + the Plastics is still in concert, but Culture for Pigeon ensures that Greenwood’s project can adapt and remain viable in more than one setting.