Are you an excellent steel horse?
Despite the recurrance of robot horses as a thematic conceit running through ‘Are We Not Horses‘ it would be easy to overplay its significance. Putting aside some of the more obtuse lyrics, what we are left with is an album of extraordinary originality and atmosphere. There is a little of the Lips’ cosmic wonder (and something of Wayne Coyne in novelist Chris Easton’s deranged wail), some of the Polyphonic Spree’s barbed evangelism, and a little of Calexico’s rust and dust choked imagery. Like Modest Mouse, Rock Plaza Central also look to Tom Waits as a reference point, but with less of Isaac Brock’s affectation. But it is more than a sum of any recognisable influences, an album with its own tangible mini-world, the forsaken border country depicted in the novels of Cormac McCarthy, all Mexican funeral marches and mescal-addled campfire storytelling. For all the contrivance and histrionics though, it is an album of intimate folk and beautiful musicianship – replete with horns, violin, piano and jazzy percussion that scuttles like a scorpian. The recording is quite raw and live-sounding, which gives the instrumentation or more spontaneous, less-glossy feel than the widescreen mariachi of Calexico.
Are We Not Horses‘ Highlights include the opener ‘I Am an Excellent Steel Horse’ and ‘My Children, Be Joyful’, which open with a delicate refrain – Chris Easton’s reedy vocal and some plucked guitar or banjo – before swelling into richly orchestrated pieces. The empowering lyrics seem primed for massed, joyous, bring-your-own-instrument singalongs; it must be fun to see this band live. ‘Anthem For The Already Defeated’ is Tom Waits territory, all junk yards, Whiskey saloons and gypsy fiddles; while ‘Fifteen Hands’ is a spine-tingling mood piece brimming with nocturnal desert paranoia. ‘When We Go, How We Go (Part II)’ is propelled by its looped, parping horns and squirming guitar licks, with a choir of children chanting ‘Go Go Go Go Go!’ adding urgency to the tempo. The best track, however, is ‘We’ve Got A Lot To Be Glad For’, an epic final gallop into the sunset that provides the album’s most expansive musical moment. If you like Are We Not Horses, try Calexico’s ‘Feast of Wire‘ or Micah P Hinson & The Gospel of Progress.