Album Review: Rock Plaza Central – …at the Moment of Our Most Needing

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Ontario’s Rock Plaza Central follows in the tradition of Canadians with a near stronger grasp on Americana than artists from the country that birthed the style. Ok, so maybe I’m giving our neighbors to the north a little too much credit. But, there’s no denying the reign that Canadian artists such as Neil Young and the Band still hold over the genre. They left and continue to leave a mark that makes most Americans look bad. A few decades have passed since the Band disbanded, but nevertheless, Canada has still got it.

Drawing comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy among others, Rock Plaza Central’s Are We Not Horses? created a twangy, fictitious world in which 15 legged mechanical horses programmed to think they were real horses roamed the race tracks. With the album, RPC’s Chris Eaton viewed the conundrum of existence through the perspective of these machines as they began to question their own being. Clearly, Eaton has a stronghold on complex narratives. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the 38-year-old is also the published author of two novels (one which he claims is a “cover” of another novel). Naturally, their follow-up to the 2006 debut is yet another stunning achievement. Reportedly inspired by William Faulkner’s Light In August, …at the Moment of our Most Needing or If Only They Could Turn Around, They Would Know They Weren’t Alone (yes, that’s the title) is filled with narratives of human scale moral conflict. Eaton further injects his literary prowess into the songwriting realm by linking songs thematically and stylistically. Imagery of light induced blindness, brightness, and the like mix together to reveal a complex story of love, loss, and learning.

Keys, horns, strings, banjo, guitar, and pounding snares fill a record that doesn’t sound nearly as self-conscious as it probably is. Then there are Chris Eaton’s extraordinary howls, which can best be described as some sort of synthesis of Jeff Mangum and Will Oldham. As Eaton sings, his warbly voice carries with it an uneasy air. It all comes together in the from of songs that present a perfect blend of thought provoking storytelling and well executed Americana soundscapes.

The album begins with the slowly unraveling “Oh I Can”, where bass drums pound their way in from silence amidst shakers and distorted electric volume swells. As clean acoustic fingerpicking brightens the track up, Eaton enters with the mantra “Oh I can/Oh I can.” Horns come in to perfectly accent to Eaton’s sore pipes, showcasing the band’s keen attention to aesthetic detail. A banjo creeps in there at some point, but the overwhelmingly full instrumentation creates one strongly unified sound whose individual pieces only accent each other. This is true of all of the album’s tracks. The instrumental “A Mule on Fire” initially places banjo at the forefront but grows into something else, with electric strums distorting their way to lush string arrangements. The track fades perfectly into the Mexican trumpeting of “(Don’t You Believe The Words of) Handsome Men”. As Eaton warns against “The words of handsome men” for various reasons, a Middle Eastern sounding string section brings a new influence into the Rock Plaza Central repertoire.

“(The World Is) Good Enough” is another philosophical trek through what is “wrong or right.” The narrator’s “hunger for all things foreboding” conjures up images that make a case for why “the world is good enough.” “I’m a fortunate girl in every way,” Eaton croons. It is difficult to tell what exactly Eaton may be referring to. Perhaps he inhabits the role of one of the female characters in Light in August. But even without a full understanding of the novel or any of the specifics, Eaton paints interesting metaphorical pictures: “the rabbit beneath the lion’s paw knows the world is good enough for all.” As Eaton cries, “I will ride with you tonight,” love shines through the otherwise dense lyrics. It’s the sort of songwriting that is as challenging or as immediate as you decide it should be. The lyrics can either be interpreted for their broad applicability, or their highly literate origins. To my estimation, there’s not much better than a song that gives you a choice like that.

The song is followed by the lush instrumental folk exploration of “Country C”. With no drums, warm strings coincide with bright melodic mandolin and add more light to balance the album’s darker side. Then comes one of the many standouts, the horn toting  “Them That are Good and Them that are Bad”. Here is where Eaton’s lyrical and aesthetic motifs shine (pun intended). “There are stars in the heavens that once fell from sunny meadows where they longed for things unsightly that might let them shine more brightly. When they find out that we’re right, will they all give up their light?” Here Eaton treats light as a means of purity, a representation of good heartedness: “When we fall from the light, will it make our darkness bright?” Moral dilemma seems to be at the forefront of the album, and it really shows here, in all its light metaphor glory. Continuing with the theme of morality, “The Wrong Side of the Right” focuses on trust and goodness in man, with beautiful acoustic plucking together with some sort of clicking percussions, warm horns, and ostinato keys.

“Holy Rider” begins with aggressively sexual imagery. The narrator longs for a lover, “holy rider help me find her”, and the short track presents a common moral dilemma. “I don’t want to fight anymore I just want to find my way home to you.” “Holy rider, sweet confider, take me home to lay beside her,” sings Eaton.  It is a conflicted narrative of a character that understands love, but obsessively desires something that may be out of his reach. This conflicted love song, however, is followed by the more straightforward, “Wherever You Are, I’m Home”. With beautiful imagery, the narrator describes his lover as a “bright shining star, my home.” Seeping with gorgeous strings, well placed piano keys, and shimmering percussion, the song brings all of the album’s themes together with a message of passionate longing.

Throughout the record, lyrics and song titles echo each other repeatedly. For example, the line “Like a mule on fire” in “We Are Full of Light” is a mirror of the album’s second track title, an instrumental. In “Hot Blind Earth” Eaton sings, “Your love’s a light, that makes me fight,” one of the album’s most frequent themes. Eaton makes it fairly clear that light is a figurative source of purity, love, and attraction with each subsequent song. On Are We Not Horses?, Eaton discussed morality and humanity, connecting everything by filtering his thoughts through the tragic realizations of the steel horses. With …At the Moment of Our Most Needing Eaton threads a beam of light through the full sound of strings to create an album cohesive in every sense of the word. Humanity has always been at the heart of the songwriting, only now it shines through a little brighter. Ontario’s Rock Plaza Central has released one of 2009’s best early on. The album consists of 13 glorious, interrelated explorations through the sprawling landscape of Americana. Maybe the Americans should start to tackle “Canadia,” because the Canadians might have this Americana thing in the bag.

Check Out:
“(Don’t You Believe the Words of) Handsome Men”

…at the Moment of Our Most Needing