An album’s opening line is a prime piece of creative real estate – but that didn’t stop the members of Head of Femur, humble artists that they are, from following the tradition of classical Greek literature and sacrificing Great Plains’s first words for an invocation of the muse. Certainly, there must be some symbolic significance in the line, which says “She’s a mother to us all / from a tavern down the street.” But I’m going to be perfectly honest: If it’s there, it’s lost on me. Regardless, if opening track “Whirlaway” has any light to shed on the album, it’s that we’re all in for one hell of a disorienting ride. And not in a beer-drinking drunk way. This is like doing speed. Or acid.
Great Plains demands a bullet-biting, fear-conquering recklessness. When followed with unconditional trust, the album’s irregular rhythms, elusive melodicism and unconventional instrumentation all possess a captivating pull that they should, by their nature, preclude themselves from owning.
To distill this album down to a genre classification would be doing it a disservice – but for argument’s sake, let’s do it anyway. The album is new wave meets Americana, plus horns and strings. Sure, those labels lack a tangible specificity, but the uncomfortably anxious pacing of title track “Great Plains” is as reminiscent of The Feelies as the close-country harmonies and saloon piano of “Open the Door Lucille” are of The Band. If new wave is typically tense, then the tension resulting from this synergistic encounter with Americana is so apparent that it’s opaque. The duality hits especially hard on the closer “Isn’t it a Shame,” where menacing organ licks straight out of Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model surrender to warm, fuzzy, earthy choruses.
True to the precedent set in “Whirlaway,” the album’s remaining lyrics never really take a firm hold in coherency. Passing references to imaginary characters “The Dr. Pepper Boy” and “Jetway Junior” reframe the sepia-toned schizophrenic mental imagery of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in vibrant Technicolor. The connotation of incoherency is, of course, historically negative, but given the semi-fractured musical structures with which the lyrics sync, the combination is far from effective.
Sadly, the only true failing here is sequencing, a thread all too common in the post-LP age. False start and all, the bracing near-power pop of fourth track “Jetway Junior” would’ve been the first-track knockout that “Whirlaway,” pleasant as it is, could never be. Meanwhile, the album-typifying closer “Isn’t it a Shame” would’ve fit best in the middle of the album. The epic, elegiac “Covered Wagons,” which seems to come out of nowhere at track six, would’ve been a far more profound cap on the album.
This album is a blender – it mixes speeds and other elements. The ride is scattershot, but sometimes unevenness and unpredictability can invigorate an experience. Great Plains is excellent proof of that.
Head of Femur
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars