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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Plankeye -- Commonwealth


On the same youth trip I referenced in the previous review, I took an ill-fated canoe ride with Jessica, the younger sister of my cousin, Rhett. Jessica is a few years older than me, and has consistently been my "cool cousin," and the one who introduces me to what is cool, just as Rhett has introduced me to awesome music. Without the two of them, I'm not sure I'd have been writing these reviews for the last five years.
Jessica currently lives in Hollywood (I REALLY need to make a travelogue about my visit to her last year), and she works in the film industry, but back in the summer of 1996, she had to slug it out at the same scary Alabama backwoods youth camp that I did. At some point at that miserable hell, we decided to take a canoe onto the camp lake to get away from the camp's local ruffians. Little did we know they could paddle just as well as they could date their cousins. They must have seen our peaceful, non-romantic cousin canoe trip, and outraged at this platonic aberration of their cousin-loving culture, decided to lay out some Alabama justice...because they paddled out to our canoe and flipped it over. Thankfully, they only wanted to ruin our fun, not kill us, because they quickly paddled away, leaving us to swim our wrecked canoe back to shore. On the swim back, Jessica released her distaste for the camp and the state of Alabama with an epic rant that for some reason included the line, "...and I don't care what anyone says, I love the new Plankeye."
I am suddenly realizing that as much as I want to talk about Plankeye, I REALLY want to talk about this awful camp I went to in Alabama. Apparently, my distaste for that state started even before they stole our football coach, and turned my favorite sport into a boring "process." But I digress...let's talk about Plankeye.
Jessica made that Plankeye comment because Commonwealth, the band's second release for Tooth & Nail Records, is a bit of a departure from the band's previous work.  The band's earlier music was marked by more of a raw, punk edge. It could also be extremely unfocused and immature. Commonwealth is instead a mature, focused offering of extremely well-written songs, and a landmark  album in Christian Rock. It sounds as good today as it did when whoever "anyone" was told Jessica it wasn't as good as Plankeye's older stuff.
In the summer of 1996, mainstream Christian rock bands were finding some success in the secular mainstream: DC Talk with "Jesus Freak," Jars of Clay with "Flood," and even Newsboys with their Take Me to Your Leader album. However, true "alternative" music, more authentically rock music by non-major label Christian bands, hadn't left much of a major sales mark. I don't mean to say that the three above-mentioned bands aren't authentic (especially in regard to Jars of Clay), but their work as a whole would never be considered that of alternative rock bands. Unfortunately, though, no Christian alternative rock band had produced an album up to that point that was worthy of selling a ton of copies. Anyone who'd heard Plankeye's previous work certainly wouldn't have pegged them as the band to break out...
Then came Commonwealth.  Here is an album that doesn't lack musical grit (the guitars are as distorted as ever), but that takes the band's earlier unfocused energy, and uses it at the service of one cohesive sound. Vocalist, Scott Silletta, has stopped attempting to ape other 90's vocalists like Eddie Vedder, and now confidently sings in his own unique voice--it's a great rock voice, and one of the most iconic in Christian Rock. Silletta's guitar interplay with second (or first, I guess) guitarist, Eric Balmer, is also great.
Truthfully, though, it's the songwriting that sets Commonwealth apart. Every song is memorable, and the hooks are great without ever being cloying. Every song is unique among its brethren, too--you could never accuse any of them of sounding too much alike.
Really, Commonwealth features some serious classics that deserve far more recognition today, powered by the honest emotion the band is able to infuse into each track. The lyrics, music, and vocals are able to convey feelings of hardship and weariness, but there's also a certain optimism and empathy that I think was completely unique to this band, particularly on Commonwealth. Unique enough, in fact, to help this album sell more than 500,000 copies.
I know it is ironic to write such a scattered, all-over-the-place review for an album that is the opposite, but I have so many memories attached to this music, and its nice to go back and hear that the warm feelings I have for it are deserved. I hope that Christian kids of the future have as equally talented bands to call their own...
but everything sucks now, so they probably won't.
I mean, listen to how iconic this song is! It sounds like it always existed!

1996 Tooth & Nail Records
1. Whisper to Me 2:50
2. B.C. 2:31
3. Push Me Down (Veiled) 5:19
4. Struck by the Chord 4:31
5. Placement 2:42
6. Commonwealth 4:15
7. He 3:47
8. Bicycle 4:08
9. Beautiful 4:05
10. Who Loves You More? 4:22

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