If we can all agree that many of the best, most interesting albums are those which convey a particular image of its maker, then there’s little doubt of Modern Plagues‘ quality. From the very outset of The Whistles And The Bells‘ sophomore album, listeners are presented with the image of auteur Bryan Simpson toiling gladly and madly in some fantastic underground fortress or basement, assembling songs of remarkable flavor on his own and then gleefully unleashing then as a beautifully barbed package which is simultaneously intelligent and dangerous, and threatens to upend the paradigmatic function of pop on the strength applied utilizing those two implements.
Don’t think that such damage can be done to pop as a form so easily, reader? One listen to Modern Plagues proves otherwise – but, as the record spins, it feels like a dangerous thing but really doesn’t feel like such a bad thing.
From the moment “Harry Potter” splatters day-glo sonic paint in every possible direction at the opening of Modern Plagues‘ A-side, listeners won’t know for sure if they tripped and fell down Alice’s rabbit hole or fell through the door of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or did indeed happen upon Ollivander’s workshop – all they’ll know for sure is that they’ve gone on leave from the world they know. There, a lush and wholly surreal image greets listeners as the song bustles with activity all around them and captures their collective imagination brightly because it is already functioning on its own and not searching for approval.
That’s impressive on its own but, even better, the song can give listeners of the right mind a sense of serenity too – even when Simpson grumbles about the fact that his girlfriend knows he’s not listening to her (“You haven’t heard a single word I’ve said – you’re not even listening/ That shit’s gonna rot your brain/ I can be a better girlfriend than the ones in your videogames” are the first words listeners hear from both this song and this album) and the singer begins moaning that he misses the simplicity of high school (“Free rent, free food and a swimming pool”), it’s hard not to enjoy and when the song finally does wander onto the subject of Harry Potter (and the fact that the singer’s girlfriend thinks he’s too old to like it), it just fits. The song plays like a beautiful stream-of-consciousness complaint which innumerable potential listeners have likely also had and that common ground gets them on board.
The lush sonic ideas continue to flow forth as the A-side of Modern Plagues continues, but it never remains focused in the same place – which deepens the appeal rather than destroying it. When that focus shifts to a more countrified angle for “Small Time Criminals,” for example, fans of both Beck and Self will be caught in the current before “Playing God” changes gears in a manner from which no Flaming Lips fan will be able to turn away. On paper, it might sound like Modern Plagues is incredible diffuse – like the musical equivalent to channel-surfing – but that isn’t actually the case. The truth is that every time a song or the focus of it changes on Modern Plagues‘ A-side, Simpson gives himself over to the new inspiration completely; it could more accurately be contended that the album plays more like a great mixtape than an album, but Simpson’s voice and sensibility bind the songs more closely together than do the songs on the average comp.
While the album’s B-side does lose a bit of the steam built by the A-side initially (“Year Of The Freakout” does not at all live up to its name, nor does “Good Drugs”), the wait isn’t too tragic and listeners will be breathing heavy sighs of delight when “Head in the Sand” crosses Flaming Lips with Frank Zappa and journeys directly to the plains of euphoria for two and a half minutes. No matter how often one listens to the track, the sheen never wears from it; here, the beat and bass converge with a truly sweet and mock-soulful keyboard figure to present a plastic soul anthem of the sort that David Bowie would have been proud to put his name on circa 1975.
The sexy step in the song basically ensures that those who weren’t sold on The Whistles And The Bells yet will be, and completely excuses the hot mess which is “Supa Dope” before carrying listeners to the side-ender “40 Years” so quickly that one might think the going was on rails. The movement is just glorious and the end represented by “40 Years” might as well have been specifically intended to leave a warm feeling in the pit of listeners’ collective stomach. The song is warm, sweet, simple and basically functions as a solid summary of everything else that has happened through the running of Modern Plagues.
After they have run front-to-back with it, listeners may discover to their surprise that there isn’t anything about Modern Plagues that they wish was different. Granted, the nature of the music might not be for everyone but, for those who are hooked by it, the album is a marvel of digital production mixed with a post-modern composition style which never relaxes or just phones in a second-rate attempt anywhere here. That speaks volumes to its composer’s ability and style; Modern Plagues absolutely conveys an image of its maker – it presents the portrait of an artist on his way up, the only question is how long it may take. Expect to find out soon though, because Bryan Simpson hasn’t yet proven to be the type to take long between releases.
(New West Records)