Montreal's Plants and Animals is in many ways a project about going back—not necessarily to nature, as their name might imply, but to rock music, and to being in a rock band.
The three members—Warren Spicer, Matthew "the Woodman" Woodley and Nicolas Basque—were adept at making complicated music as music-school students before forming Plants and Animals.
"We were total music-school, experimental nerd people," said guitarist/vocalist Spicer. "Which was a really cool way to spend my education, but I couldn't really make much of a life out of it, because no one wants to listen to that music."
After music school, Spicer got a grant from the Canadian government to make a record and enlisted Woodley and Basque to assist. The trek back to listenable music began. The group's first, self-titled project, an EP released in 2004, was instrumental, and Parc Avenue, the band's 2008 album, continued a loose and wandering vibe, but with shorter songs and lyrics.
This year's La La Land, however, has the members of Plants and Animals residing in a world where riffs and melodies sink in on the first listen, and where the lyrics mean what they say.
"It's less nebulous," explained Spicer. "Some of the earlier stuff wasn't terribly grounded, lyrically; you could interpret it lots of different ways. The newer stuff is a lot more straight-ahead."
La La Land's straight-ahead rock includes the classic-rock groove of "Jeans Jeans Jeans," the dance-rock style of "The Mama Papa," and the drama of "Undone Melody." Even seemingly ironic songs like "American Idol" ("I want to be your American Idol," cries the Canadian Spicer) were written with much more literal concepts in mind.
"It wasn't intended to be ironic; it's something that a lot of people would want to be," said Spicer.
Even the saxophone solo in the middle of the song comes across as perfectly in context. "In the wrong light, it could be viewed as some kind of ironic stuff," said Spicer. "But we don't really do that as a band; we're not very good at irony. It's just not really what we're into."
As students of music, Plants and Animals instead focus on what works musically for any given song.
"Everything gets judged musically," said Spicer. "So if it works musically, if it's got soul or makes sense musically, then we keep it, but otherwise, if it's just a gag and good for a laugh, then we probably wouldn't keep it."
They also try to keep things simple by remembering that they are first and foremost a band, and their records should reflect that. To that end, Plants and Animals record to tape; the evolution of their sound has to do with the process of touring as a live rock band and conceiving of their records as records, and not digital tracks.
"Part of the reason we've done a lot of work on tape isn't only because of the way it sounds, but it's also been a way of putting limitations on the process and not getting carried away with computer records, where things can get really out of control," explained Spicer. "You start to move away from what you can do with a band; you start moving into what you can do with a computer. And that has a place for making records, for sure, but it has nothing to do with being a band."
As a result, La La Land feels like a rock album recorded with modern sensibilities on analog equipment, with echoes of past eras and older sounds. The band's focus on "keeping the language really simple, keeping the ideas really easy to understand," as Spicer put it, only further showcases the band's musicianship: This is simple rock written by musicians who could, if they wanted to, make things a lot more complex.