Album Review: Plush – Fed

Plush is the moniker adopted by Chicago singer-songwriter Liam Hayes, and Fed was in a way his Chinese Democracy.  Hayes had recorded and released an earlier album titled More You Becomes You in 1998, and Fed was to be that record’s follow-up.  By all acounts, More You Becomes You was a sparse and subtle affair, featuring Hayes in full singer-songwriter mode accompanied by little more than his own piano.  Apparently, Hayes decided to completely shift gears for his next album, utilizing an army of studio engineers, professional studio musicians, backup singers, etc.  After two years of recording and a studio bill already breaching six figures, small Chicago indie label Drag City got cold feet from the prospect of having to cover such a large expense.  With no label, Hayes reportedly footed a couple hundred grand of his own money to finish the thing.  At that point, no label on either side of the Atlantic was willing to take on the expense, and, after Fed was given limited release in Japan to massive critical praise in 2002, it faded from memory.  Fast forward to six years later, and UK indie label Broken Horse finally stepped in to expose this lost labor of love to the light of day.

I finally got around to finding the album a couple of days after Christmas, and warming up to it has been a task.   This is not an easy album to absorb on just one, two, three, or even more listens.  It did not help that I also purchased Glasvegas’ debut and Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid at the same time, which are both infinitely listenable pop records.  But this Fed, this was a different animal entirely.

I’ve been wrestling with this album practically every day since purchasing it, and I have more than once considered throwing in the towel.  Many of the songs are extremely disjointed, as Hayes creates multiple, fragmented little movements within each song.  If there were such a thing as prog soul, this would be it.  Album opener “Whose Blues” begins with a lazy blues guitar lick before absolutely exploding into a horns and guitar groove just past the one minute mark.  The five minute tune then morphs and shifts multiple times throughout the song, the tempo slowing and speeding up with no warning while Hayes warbly voice struggles with and stresses each note, cracking here and there as he reaches for notes he just wasn’t born to hit.  It’s an exhausting listen, and one starts to get the sense early where that six figure recording bill came from.  Everything but the kitchen sink is included in that first track, and the kitchen sink follows on subsequent tracks.  It’s this excess that I read about before listening to the album, and it’s this excess that made me really not want to like this album.  On the first few listens, it seemed that Hayes had carved his own epitaph with a line from that first song on the album: “My creation has drowned me.”

However, after about three weeks of fruitless attempts, I threw the album onone day, and everything suddenly worked.  My wrestling matches had paid off, and I was finally able to see the genius behind the wall of sound.  Even Hayes’ vocals, which will probably be a deal-breaker for many, began to gel with the music in my mind.  I noticed how, at times, Hayes can sound like a dead ringer for George Harrison.  The swelling and blasting Philadelphia-soul-by-way-of-Burt-Bacharach horns, piano, strings, and funky guitar riffs combined with the raw emotion in which Hayes drenches his strained vocals make these songs ones that I can’t resist coming back to, and I’m finding myself envisioning a long future with this album, when just a few days before I was considering filing it away for good and moving on. 

There are simply too many standout moments on this album to compile into one little review, and more have been revealing themselves on each subsequent listen.  One definite bright spot worth mentioning is the album’s most easily digestible and brilliant song, the late 60’s/early 70’s Brit-pop flavored “Greyhound Bus Station.”  It’s a joyous, horn-drenched exercise in perfect three minute pop.  That track is immediately followed by “No Education,” a slow, gorgeous ballad slathered with healthy doses of Hammond organ and swelling strings.  The infinitely funky “I’ve Changed My Number” coalesces into a simply uplifting chorus with what seems to be Hayes’ mission statement: “Gotta see your soul power.”

I went into this album with a bit of a closed mind, fully expecting a Chinese Democracy situation in which Hayes would be crushed under the weight of his own ambition.  Instead, I am now a convert.  I see Plush’s soul power, and it’s awesome.

There are no songs from Fed up on Youtube, but there is one song called “Take A Chance” that is purportedly a single from Plush’s next album, Bright Penny.  According to Plush’s website, this album is due out in spring of 2008.   Uh oh, here we go again!

Plush – “Take A Chance”

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