“Plants and Animals” is an apt name for a band that doesn’t quite know what it is. They’ve been around for ten years, but their LPs make a pretty good go of trying to cover every genre without settling on one cohesive ideal, like a collection of musical schizophrenia. The band’s show on Friday at the Red Palace maintained that vein, and if you closed your eyes and simply listened, you would at times have had no idea if you were listening to fellow Canadians Arcade Fire or an old Rush album.
The show opened with a great big wall of dancey-jammy-basey sound and a “How’re you doing, Austin?” We’ll excuse the confusion, P&A, because you’ve been on constant tour and openly said how damn tired everyone was, you had five dates at SXSW last month (but then again, even that guy who plays the plastic tubs outside the Verizon Center had a five-show gig at SXSW this year), and it’s not like you can see the Washington Monument from H Street. Moving quickly into “Good Friend,” from 2008’s Parc Avenue, proved a solid move -- the three-quarter capacity crowd broke into spontaneous mass head-bobbing, and who wouldn’t love a song that includes the lyrics “It takes a good friend to say you’ve got your head up your ass?” The audience largely consisted of a few mega-fans and the people they’d dragged with them, so getting right to a good, hooky song led to a whole lot of See, man, I told you they were awesome.
Despite their admitted exhaustion, the performance showcased how musically talented the trio (with an added bassist for the tour) can be - they know their shit and can flat out play when they feel like it. The frustrating thing is that they don’t commit to what to do with that talent. Just as P&A starts to get you hooked on a song, and your brain starts to figure out the loopy dynamics, they pull the rug out from under you and dart down a rabbit hole into a totally different style of music, complete with key changes and sometimes spoken lyrics, and it’s not a surprise that the resulting mess doesn’t gel. Their all-over-the-map style is not a merging of many sounds into multi-layered cohesion -- it’s a Pinterest board of song snippets glued together with a bass line. “Game Shows,” off La La Land, was a perfect example -- lead singer Warren Spicer started out behind the keyboards with a slow, wrenching song about relationships, but then suddenly Nic Basque roared in on guitar, with the requisite key change, and Matthew Woodley changed the percussion set-up, and the song was then something altogether different from where it started. Even with all that talent and 10 years to figure it out, Plants & Animals is a band with no distinct sound to call their own - performing live, they sound like a good mash up of a bunch of other things, but nothing that’s really, truly great.
At its best, the band is three kind grilled-cheese sandwiches from being a classic jam band, and at its most cheesy it’s one puppet show billing away from being Spinal Tap -- but it’s pretty clear that the goofy spoken-word stuff and big electric guitar solos with heads pressed together is intentionally self-mocking. Was the show a fun way to spend $10 on a Friday in D.C.? Definitely, but I’m still not ready to commit to fully loving this band. Not until they can commit to it themselves.