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Review: Quilt Tune In, Turn On, and Ultimately Drop Out on ‘Plaza’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: February 26, 2016
Label: Mexican Summer

In 2013, on the occasion of Devendra Banhart’s then-new album Mala, the New York Times surveyed the tumbleweed-strewn scene once known as freak-folk. Animal Collective were beginning their transition from drug experimenters to the coolest of dads. Joanna Newsom was making songs under ten minutes long and endearing herself to discerning public radio listeners. Lately, Banhart can be found scoring Sundance films and playing Celebrity Boyfriend at Paris couture shows. Indie rock’s freaks matured, branched out, and transcended niche.

Quilt, whose self-titled debut arrived in 2011, didn’t have time to establish a voice as distinctive as Banhart’s or as ambitious as Newsom’s. The freak-folk flying carpet swept up their unassuming psychedelic-rock sound in its tailwinds, and delivered to the world 2014’s well-received, sunlit Held in Splendor. But as the established leaders of the style sought greener pastures, Quilt’s premise — contemporary twentysomethings bearing the quixotic visions of the Zombies or the Mamas & the Papas — met the limits of their originality. The band’s latest, Plaza, is punchier than its predecessor, but it’s a less rewarding trip down the path more traveled.

Again produced by Jarvis Taveniere of Woods, Plaza sounds sparkling clean and perfectly balanced, but its clarity of vision can’t match the clarity of its production. At their Held in Splendor best, Quilt alternated spiraling riffs with languorous, fuzzed-out harmonies, sometimes within the same song. Lyrics hit on casual, unexpected profundities (“You know deep down you’re nothing but a myth” from “Talking Trains”), then slipped pleasantly into the background. By comparison, Plaza feels scripted. A chorus like “There is something there” (from the pretty but prosaic “Something There”) quickly becomes a reminder that there really isn’t.

What risks Quilt do take — banishing tape hiss, piling on strings — hardly qualify as such. Fortunately, they have an antidote to outright boredom in classically trained frontwoman Anna Fox Rochinski. Her vocals bring momentum to the loopy, oblique objection of “Roller” and animate weaker material like “O’Connor’s Barn” and “Hissing My Plea.” The only song that carries its weight without her vocals is “Padova,” a wistful, open-ended reverie sung by co-founder Shane Butler that, buried halfway through the second half, amounts to the record’s golden hour.

None of Plaza is bad. It’s carefully and competently constructed, palatable but perilously short on whimsy. The cover image, a drawing by the late Los Angeles contemporary artist Ken Price, is awfully easy on the eyes. But Quilt’s newly straight-laced psych simply doesn’t hold the interest of its current peers, whether it’s Amen Dunes’ drunken confessionals or Widowspeak’s dreamy intimacy. Folk-pop has moved on, while Quilt has evened out. They’re still searching, but the mystery’s already been solved.