Elastic Smile, by Great Western Plain
Progress is tense, gross, anxious, and inevitable. In Great Western Plain, a Portland rock trio originally from the Orono area, it’s that and more, and their new album, an eight-song, 51-minute motherfucker called Elastic Smile, doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat it. A demonstration of Neu-ish kraut rhythms done up in prodigious Yankee style, with unattractive vocal harmonies either deadpanned or brazenly off-key, and a guitar tone that could best be described as desperate, the sprawling Elastic Smile is as much of an original statement as a daunting one.
Yet every serious music fan has figured out that many of their favorite albums are those they’ve initially found repellent. (This principle is also true of progress.) Great Western Plain make it resoundingly clear what their intentions are, leading off their second full-length, the follow-up to 2012’s Mustache Eye Patch, with “Thom,” a taut, bass-driven post-punk song that does its best to resist dynamics over 12 and a half minutes. It’s not a similar-sounding song to the 12-minute commencement on Shellac’s Terraform, but as an opening salvo, it represents the very same finger.
Track two, the aggressively slack, 5-minute “Venado Negro,” presents itself innocently enough, its great garbage-rock riff played with a tone so shrill it sounds like the pickups were replaced with stovetop coils. The 7-and-a-half minute “Wipers” gives away another influence (though Greg Sage never had this sort of patience), returning to the uniform kraut-rock rhythms the album led with, bassist Michael Powers and drummer Anthony Bitetti banging out the same 4/4 measure over and over again while Tim Berrigan drills springs of noise from his amplifier. After a tense, two-minute interlude in the middle, the band return in full force and it’s a cacophony that’s almost orchestral in its squall. The band seem exquisitely comfortable making noise here; recorded by Bitetti, it sounds wonderful.
“Monroe” shows Great Western Plain aren’t trying to be masochists, and neither are they out to fuck with you. While the song doesn’t compromise the harsh palette of tones and timbres they’ve already rolled out, nor does it much attempt to glorify the deadpanned, disaffected vocals, it’s evidence that Elastic Smile is a noise record in the Daydream Nation mold — one stemming from places more emotional and expressive than antisocial. The lurching, six-and-a-half-minute “Carolyn” reaffirms this, as Berrigan’s vocals stretch into an uncomfortably high register for a chorus of “don’t you run away / feeling not okay.” It’s one of the album’s only lines delivered with any sort of subjective intention, and as purposely queasy as it comes out, it helps carve out a path to the album’s buried emotional heft.
Along with the distant Sonic Youth and Neu nods, Elastic Smile will have you recalling My Dad is Dead, NoMeansNo, the Wipers, Naked Raygun, and maybe a few other classic post-punk groups you didn’t actually listen to when they were around. It’s a spacious, bold, and truly enjoyable rock record, perhaps even for those who are sure to recoil from the sort of unreconstructed stylistic choices the band make throughout the album. It has no obvious, definitive place in the Portland music scene, and to the best of my knowledge sounds very little any other record made in Maine in a very long time. It shows Great Western Plain to be the sort of band that can be confounding and trustworthy, ugly and passionate, all at once. Feels gross sometimes, but nobody said progress should be pretty.
ELASTIC SMILE | released by Great Western Plain | with Crystal Stilts | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | June 22 | greatwesternplain.bandcamp.com