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Plays Music

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Look at the packaging for a moment. If aliens came to earth and hatched a fiendish plot to control the minds of music fans genre by genre, this is the package they'd develop to rope the post-rock folks in. It's downright quintessential, from the stark, geometrical loneliness of the cover photo to the snickeringly oblique in-jokes disguised as song titles. You could put Plays Music into the Smithsonian on the strength of its packaging alone.

Having seen the package, if you think you have a pretty good idea what Plays Music sounds like, you're probably right. 33.3 are blithely acting out their musical vignettes on the thin line between trendiness and flat-out cliche, and in the end it's mostly the sheer passion of their performance that keeps them on the right side of that border.

Guitar and drums provide the stuff we've heard before -- loose-knit, semi-improvised instrumental rock songs filtered through a precise, jazz-inflected tempo. Trumpet, trombone, cello and double bass fill in the "voices" and textures, and this is where Plays Music derives its individuality. Dominique Davison's cello lends warmth to all it touches, its earthy chords giving humanity to the mathematical progression of "Power Failure at the U.N.", and sliding a gentle sentimentality into the background of "An Open Letter to Buckminster Fuller". Meanwhile, horn player Joseph Grimm provides the album with its emotional center, easing his instrument's strident tones into the cocktail-flavored "The Odds", then alternating between melodic pathfinding and guitar-taunting repetition on "Oval Cast as Circle".

I'm not casting any aspersions on Brian Alfred's guitar work, but those palpable interactions between cello, double bass and horns -- when you can actually feel the bow scraping across the strings and hear the horn blare with more urgency than the piece requires -- will always give me the chills. Davison, Grimm and double bassist William Noland sound like they're having far too good a time to bother maintaining the aura of intense concentration common to this genre. If you have any doubts about Noland, don't worry -- he comes into his own on the frenetic "Super Eight".

Plays Music isn't unique. Anyone who owns a Slint record could probably cite a few dozen sound-alikes, or at least sound-a-lot-likes. We can either proceed on the assumption that all of those albums, including Plays Music, are trend-aping knockoffs, and write off the lot of them, or we can follow a more challenging and satisfying path, listening for the unique and special aspects of each album. Plays Music sounds like stuff you've heard before, but there's a special, vibrant joy between its notes. It's easy to find if you look for it.

-- George Zahora
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