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Plastic Nebraska | Stories Of Happiness (I-Town)
After a decade languishing in obscurity, registering barely a boing or a blip on the alt-country sonar, it seems that these six Upstate New Yorkers have more pent-up passion for the open road than the bulk of their nature-loving neighbourhood brethren. Revelling in the combatant entanglement of urban and agrarian sounds, 'Stories of Happiness' (the band's first release since 2000's 'The Proudest Animal' EP) captures the sextet embracing an epic eclecticism that catapults them far beyond the realms of comfortable rurality. An artistic remit that certainly reaps rewards in the stylistic shape-shifting stakes, if nothing else. Thus the vicious Vacuumed mixes 'Glum'-era Giant Sand gristle with Dick Dale surf twang and Fugazi drum clatter, highlighting the burning intent to cross musical borders from the start. The glorious mash of strings and shimmering guitars that is Helicopter follows a little later on, owing a dual-debt to Calexico and Eleventh Dream Day, whilst further on in the proceedings the distended funk of Electricity Wire betrays a fondness for Talking Heads' most frenzied early-albums. The record's highest musical watermark is however reached at the monolithic mid-point - Diamond Mines - a dramatic orchestral thunderstorm that recalls Ennio Morricone at his most menacing and macabre. But for all the group's genre-bending ingenuity, the best moments on 'Stories of Happiness' occur within the more stripped-down and sedate musical settings, as firmly attested by the wintry waltz of Flowers (featuring Saint Low's Mary Lorson on guest vocals) and through the spooky organ/accordion-led strains of Betty Ford. With 16 tracks spread across 63 long minutes, the record's sonic density is a bit tough to digest in one serving, suggesting a slimmer and trimmer ten or twelve tracks might have made for a tighter, more immediate collection. Moreover, whilst the band's penchant for bigger and bolder arrangements has upped the gravitas of the songwriting, the sublime interlocking vocals of brothers Ted and Rick Hansen, which made 'The Perfect Animal' EP such a treat, have all but been submerged and sidelined by the surging six-member attack. Such reservations aside though, this wild (and wide-screen) log-cabin breakout should, by rights, pull Plastic Nebraska away from long-suffering indifference and into the welcoming arms of adventure-hungry Americana addicts.
CWAS #12 - Summer 2003