For some time now, it’s seemed probable that neo-psych quartet Quilt was destined to create rather pleasant albums that you wanted to like more than you actually did. For all their agreeability, the band’s self-titled 2011 debut and 2014 follow-up ‘Held in Splendor' suffered from the presence of songs that sometimes sounded like little more than excuses to prop up lysergic excesses (perhaps equally distressing was the sense that those indulgences were rarely remarkable).
With ‘Plaza’, Quilt have solved the problem from the inside out, first writing granite-solid pop songs, then using studio flourishes as psychedelic ornamentation that both strengthens and complicates these compositions. The album is so strong it has the unintended consequence of making the two records that preceded it appear dim and indistinct in its shadow. Primary songwriters Anna Fox Rochinski and Shane Butler plainly deserve credit for their advances. However, characteristically fine production from Jarvis Taveniere of Woods is integral to ‘Plaza’s aesthetic, while the rhythm section (drummer John Andrews and bassist Keven Lareau) provides a substantial foundation for the band’s increasingly baroque sonic architecture.
To generalise a bit, the songs fronted by Rochinski tend toward the aggressive and rhythmic while the Butler-led tracks lean warmer and more winsome. Rather than strike some sort of compromise, they’ve each elected to dive further into their separate visions, providing ‘Plaza’ with a healthy push-and-pull tension that generally works in the record’s favour.
The immediate standout is Butler’s ‘Eliot St.’, which possesses a windswept beauty suggestive of late-period Beatles or Lindsey Buckingham’s obsessively detailed ballads from Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’. Sounding at once genial and spectral, it’s flush with gently surrealistic sonic nuances that feel like minor revelations, and it stands as the most fully-realised song this band has ever managed. However, nearly as impressive is the tranquil flipside ‘Something There’, penned by Andrews. So billowy it barely seems to exist, it’s the kind of song that smuggles itself into your subconscious, leaving you to wake up murmuring its melody in the half-light of dawn.
Devilishly sequenced between these gemlike highs is the garish Rochinski showcase ‘Hissing My Plea’, a warped R&B nugget spiked with perversely pregnant pauses and false-start rhythms. In the immaculately produced environment of ‘Plaza’, these silences and stutters comes across as hold-your-breath moments, disrupting an otherwise fine retro soul rave-up and subverting it into something stranger. Puncturing the polished-paisley veneer with negative space immediately throws the overall atmosphere a few degrees off, and as Rochinski makes a swaggering entrance bellowing the curious title phrasing, it becomes clear that the sometimes timid band of two prior albums has been laid to rest.
Before a full 30 seconds have elapsed, ‘Hissing My Plea’ already feels like a candidate for Quilt’s most adventurous song ever; from there, cascading strings, woodwind flutters, and hall-of-mirror vocal layering conspire to create a constantly mutating, quicksand-like atmosphere that’s ecstatically off-centre. Rochinski brings a similar confidence to the hovering drone of album opener ‘Passerby’ and the slinky, mod-ish mazes of ‘Roller’ and ‘O’Connor’s Barn’, resulting in song cycle that eclipses her work on past releases.
Which isn’t to say that Plaza is the ultimate realisation of Quilt’s potential. Streamlined rocker ‘Searching For’ lacks a convincing bite, while closing jam ‘Own Ways’ (the only track here to crack the five-minute mark) recalls the extended workouts of Taveniere’s band Woods, minus their purposefulness and synergy. And it must be said that ‘Eliot St.’, ‘Something There’, and ‘Hissing My Plea’ are peaks that rather conspicuously tower above the surrounding material. Yet, if ‘Plaza’ doesn’t wholly satisfy from start to finish, it’s more than a mere transitional album. Call it a pathway forward that’s anything but straightforward, and is all the more beguiling because of its asymmetrical digressions.
Words: Michael Wojtas
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