Eleven months ago, PLAINS put out a 7” through Discosoma Records. The small vinyl release (now sold out) introduced Miami to band mastermind Michael McGinnis, who had moved here from Chicago in 2009 to work as a recording engineer, and one of its tracks, “Innovator”, logged the ten spot on our Top 15 South Florida Songs of 2010 list.
The track revealed a resilient breed of rock — moody, yearning, and rowdy with a deft mix of muddy bass lines, shrieking riffs, and strategically placed acoustics — that hinted at indie rock forefathers with a freshness that made it hard to conduct the auditory paternity test by ear alone.
As good as “Innovator” was, it only made us want to hear more from PLAINS. McGinnis played it coy, leaking a song here, playing a show there (with a shifting lineup that currently features Animal Tropical members Jorge Rubiera and Max Johnston on drums and guitar, respectively, and Jorge Graupera on guitar). But he kept us guessing as to whether he could deliver the goods: not just a great song, but an album full of them.
I’m happy to report that he can.
On July 19, PLAINS will unleash a 13-track, self-titled debut album through 10K Islands Records and make a compelling case for local album of the year — no small distinction considering the 2011 output of ANR, Cop City Chill Pillars, Can’t Stop, and Lil Daggers.
The album sounds off with the immodest “End of the World”, a track that conjures Arcade Fire with its urgent guitars, driving drums, and overall grandiosity. Although packed with end-times imagery, the song is about something much more personal than the Apocalypse. “When it’s the end of the world, who’ll you run to? Where will you go?” Poignantly, pathetically even, McGinnis wants to know whether you’ll choose him when the Four Horsemen come galloping through town. Meanwhile, as the lyrics vacillate between the poles of unity and solitude, the music manages to be both somber and rollicking. It’s a helluva note to start an album on, and the amazing thing is that the next twelve songs manage to live up to the expectations McGinnis raises with this opener.
Back-to-back tracks “Black Feeling” (which we leaked back in April) and the aforementioned “Innovator” reinforce McGinnis’s ability to rock and rack his listener simultaneously. It isn’t magic, just a rare combination of technical savvy, good taste, and talent — the humble trinity that early indie rock, post-punk, and grunge-era bands all thrived on.
Kicking off with murky bass notes, “Innovator” ultimately outs McGinnis as a meticulous arranger who likely agonizes over the placement of a single strum (see 2:23 and 2:27). Built on nagging, high-pitched guitar, “Black Feeling” is one of the few rock songs about feeling shitty that sets your head involuntarily a-banging. McGinnis’s rhythmic vocals are on full display here, carrying the foreboding track to unexpectedly poppy places with Michael Stipe-esque flair.
But if pop’s your pleasure, “Judy” is the chart-topper of the bunch. From its first reverberated, harp-like strum, the song has you convinced you’ve heard it before, you know the lyrics, and, in fact, you were singing it into your loofah just this morning. Before you know it, you’ve joined a heartbroken McGinnis at the bar on his search for “comfort in deeper drinks”, a quest that culminates in the whole soused tavern bellowing the song’s joyously bitter chorus: “Ohhhhh J-Judy!/Go on and sing your songs, J-Judy/Go on and run, run, run.”
PLAINS’ aforementioned standouts stand out, but every track on the album rewards the ear. “Poor Little Space Monkey” is a Jane’s Addiction song without Perry Farrell’s irritating voice. “Roots”, an arrangement of funk and crispy metallic layers, illustrates McGinnis’s creativity with the knobs. The thumping bass line, prominently featured at the outset of the song, is pulled back, fuzzed out, and left bare to complement McGinnis’s hallway voice. “All I Want” finds McGinnis hammering an acoustic guitar with a melancholic violin, jaunty keyboards, and well-placed misplaced static in the background. The songs “Break You Up” and “Dry” are both sonic nods to different segments of 1990s Britpop. “Break You Up” is a stripped down acoustic ballad that calls to mind the hand-me-down pop of Oasis, while “Dry” is powered by the icy sexiness of Pulp’s This is Hardcore.
Overall, PLAINS is the rare record sans a skippable song, a collection of intelligent rock crafted by a musician with an engineer’s technical skill, a bleeding heart’s emotional baggage, and a songsmith’s careful craftsmanship. The combination results in a collection of songs that sound checks many while mimicking none. If PLAINS were released at any point in McGinnis’s career, it would be a major achievement. As a debut, it is astonishing.
As we first mentioned in this month’s top music events list, PLAINS will celebrate the album release with a show at the Vagabond on July 22. Until then, here is the track listing for the debut.
1. “End of the World”
2. “Poor Little Space Monkey”
3. “Sleep Deprived”
5. “Black Feeling”
6. “All I Want”
10. “Hang On”
11. “Break You Up”
13. “Good Son”