The band called Plants and Animals is a rarity in contemporary indie rock in that it combines a pastoral sound with more than a little cosmopolitanism. Parc Avenue, a brilliant debut that got overlooked in part because of how difficult it was to pinpoint, was arguably the finest debut album by a Montreal band since the Arcade Fire’s. The mix of old-world and modern-world sounds is a distinct quality of Montreal, and Plants and Animals, made up of both Anglos and Quebecois, showcased that quality effervescently on its debut.
On La La Land, however, Plants and Animals abandon most of the qualities that made the band distinct in favor of conforming to more contemporary indie trends. Whereas Parc Avenue was an unusual but immensely satisfying hybrid of Arcade Fire and Village Green-era Kinks, La La Land sounds more like that sound filtered through a clearly palpable influence of Grizzly Bear and the National. The dropoff in quality is immediately noticeable.
Opener “Tom Cruz” is reflective of how things have changed. While still resembling Parc Avenue‘s mix of urban tropes and subtle synths with a serene summertime atmosphere, it’s not nearly as sprightly as the better tracks on Plants and Animals’ debut. The middle section of La La Land, from “Swinging Bells” to “Game Shows,” features five turgidly slow songs that can’t be saved by good-not-great vocal harmonies. Whereas the songs from Parc Avenue turned Plants and Animals into a pleasant surprise at nearly every festival set they appeared in recently, these songs couldn’t hold the attention of even the most intimate venue live. What they could do is woo some innocents at a house party, which is the exact same kind of audiences many indie bands have preyed on in recent years on their way to pseudo-fame. Case in point: “American Idol,” typical of the worst combination of personal self-aggrandizing and indie self-mockery.
La La Land is the kind of album that could have been saved by one great song. While “The Mama Papa” and “Fake It” briefly display a pulse, they’re not nearly strong enough to turn La La Land into anything but a sophomore slump following an album that, while exceedingly well-received, wasn’t that popular in the first place.
More than any album I can think of in recent memory, La La Land shows just how dangerous it can be for a young band to let influences that don’t mesh at all into their sound, no matter how nice the guys who make up those influences may be. The members of Plants and Animals are smart, yes, but if advancing the band’s sound into cryptic folk drains all the life out of the songs, it’s more a sign of them being too smart for their own good.