Imperial Phase

by Plastic Ants

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about

It could have been a book of short stories. Or a mixed-media art installation, or even some new architectural marvel.

It is, after all, an album titled Imperial Phase, and it evokes—and then necessarily chops to pieces—all the desire, over-reach, and moral obscenity that such an expression implies. The phrase itself, repeated in the titular song by Plastic Ants’ singer-songwriter Robert Cherry, originated with another urbane, media-smart singer-songwriter, the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, and it’s pure cheek, as it absolutely must be. It initially conjures those can-do-no-wrong, insouciant chapters in the stories of many an ascendant entertainment career—that moment of perfect platinum power, or in this case, gold (a color mentioned five times on the record). It’s when things get exquisitely, breathlessly, insufferably stratospheric.

We all know what happens next, and it ain’t pretty.

But it was, for a time. Golds, greens, and sandy hills-of-Hollywood tonalities gild this album from top to bottom. Yet these deeply engrossing pop songs also, cannily, throw gobs of shade right back at it all, often drawing an astute connection between the entertainment and empire-building industries and their self-immolating tendencies, and doing so in croons. The result brings to my mind the handsome tension of, say, Bryan Ferry in a punch-up with Paul Weller—think suave with a few bruises and a lot more teeth.

But there is also an even deeper level the songs and their interconnecting stories augur, for the Plastic Ants’ take on “imperial” ephemerality is surprisingly and passionately personal. Celebrity culture is used, ingeniously, as a kind of mise en scène through which a set of contemporary characters move. Instead of prisoners in Plato’s Cave, staring at shadows from light projected behind them, they’re numbly tapping Angry Birds on a private jet ride to Malibu, while their actual lives fall apart.

In this, Imperial Phase could not be more of our time. It poses crucial, timely questions. Do people in today’s Instagrammed and Facebooked relationships imitate the lives of Hollywood celebrities, or do the stars pretend they are just like us—lost, hopeful, and playing a game in codes they don’t understand. It’s the kind of “reality” versus “appearances” paradox this album repeatedly seems to ask. The answer, for Plastic Ants, is always both—and neither.

That Plastic Ants have chosen pop songs as the vehicle to communicate a new, broad-spectrum artwork ends up seeming both incidental and inevitably perfect. Yes, these are gorgeous songs, songs of an almost shameless enormity—each feels, in its own way, as big and dangerously glorious as a setting California sun—but they speak a multimodal artistic language so fluently, you get snagged on several levels at once.

There are not only clever but meaningful literary nods to S.E. Hinton, to Wordsworth, to children’s bedtime books. And then there are the devilishly calibrated visuals—the website, the album art, the videos, the Vincent Perraud photography. A whole very distinct and mesmerizing story pours through all this, threaded with imagery that both mourns and pokes fun at past golden eras of marketing, and especially the late ’60s and early ’70s, when many of the band members—Cherry, bassist-producer John Curley, drummer Joe Klug, and keyboardist-singer Guy Vanasse—were born.

The desolation of scripted marketing and the fame game are not only topical foci here, they’re themes and subtexts, and they come in for heavy scrutiny. At times, the characters work against the flow of tinsel-town cliché with great, if brittle, courage: “She don’t wait for permission/She makes up her own games/From a town with so little vision, baby/She ripped the script to pieces and tore away” (“A Sea of Upturned Faces”). At other moments, we dig deep into the narcissistic assholedom and degeneracy of relationship “acting”: “Destiny No Longer Waits” returns to the gaming motif, with Cherry singing about someone who lives “life like it’s a video game/And the love you only simulate/Leaves her wanting more.”

Ironically, the fingerprints of Cherry’s other professional careers—he’s a longtime music magazine editor (also like Tennant) turned successful creative director—seem to be all over his handiwork here, and it’s, well, complicated. One past video promo on the Plastic Ants’ website features an Edie-cool model who plays an Air France flight attendant returning home, tired, to her icy-hip, lonesome apartment, click-clacking up cold stairs in black heels and pulling out a presumably rejuvenating vinyl Plastic Ants record. That character was a kind of tribute to and critique of a bygone ad-world chic.

On Imperial Phase, a similar but changed figure (who’s a little more Cheryl Tiegs/Jerry Hall than Sedgwick) of a young woman appears. The ’60s feel quite over here, and Edie has OD’d. This young person is all West Coast success and arrival, with rippling gold hills in the distance. With her shoes left behind in the dust, she gazes out a white, ’70s-vintage Porsche (not hers, we sense) that’s perhaps a bit better preserved than her own dreams, which look both achieved and, suddenly, rather worthless. She seems both freed and trapped: “Surfing the zeitgeist was quite nice there up on the wave,” sings Cherry on the title song. “But you had to know, it had to break.” Break indeed—like Pacific waves against Venice Beach, like the ’60s good vibrations against the hard jetties of post-Nam, post-Kent State, post-Jimi-and-Janice. Imperial Phase is there, at that moment, to record, write, sing, and visualize all the pieces, and to figure out what happens next.

Personally, I hate the term “chamber pop,” a term used to describe the band’s debut album, Falling To Rise. It’s so small, so orderly, so “chambery,” after all. If these are chambers, they come with unfolding, Christopher Nolan walls. They embrace real risks: “He stepped from the wreckage of her first attack,” sings Cherry on “The Girl Who Stole The World,” with whispers of Bowie in that Faustian title. “Now what would he give to get that moment back.”

What does come next? That’s what every listener can feel good about. “Light” is a word mentioned eight times on Imperial Phase, but the noun mentioned more than any other word, tellingly, magnificently, is “love.”

When Love comes into this world, it’s inescapable, and it hits hard. In one of the record’s most memorable, instantly hummable songs, “You Will Know Love,” Cherry simply offers no alternative: “You will know love… Like a hammer to your skull.”

In the end, those souls forlorned and lost in the Pacific are brought back to shore—sadder, wiser, but stronger, too. Our woman in the 911 ditches the narcissist asshole she’s been dating, and steals the car: “No one’s princess doesn’t need no prince kiss/’Cause she already stole his whole world.”

And his Porsche. And our hearts.

Imperial Phase may have that effect on you, too. It is, in many ways, a masterful narrative about surviving all “imperial” moments in today’s world, and moving towards what is deeper, richer, and more enduring than even, well, gold.

—Bill Broun, July 2016

Bill Broun’s first novel, Night of the Animals, is out now on Ecco Books/Harper Collins. Discover more about the author at BillBroun.com

credits

released October 7, 2016

ROBERT CHERRY vocals, guitar
JOHN CURLEY bass, percussion, vocals
JOE KLUG drums, percussion, vocals, vibraphone, synthesizer, Mellotron strings
GUY VANASSE piano, vocals, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer electronic piano, Mellotron strings, vibraphone

Featuring guest performances by KRISTEN KREFT and BETH HARRIS vocals DAN BARGER saxophone, flute

Produced and arranged by PLASTIC ANTS

Recorded and mixed by JOHN CURLEY at ULTRASUEDE STUDIO Cincinnati, Ohio

ANNA BENTLEY assistant engineer

Mastered by DAVE DAVIS at THE ALL NIGHT PARTY Cincinnati, Ohio

Art Direction by JEFF JOHNS

Photography by VINCENT PERRAUD except band photo by MICHAEL WILSON all rights reserved

Special thanks to ANDREW McMULLEN, CALVIN BROWN, TOM CURLEY, PATRICK MILLER, KELLY STATHAM, BILL BROUN, PERRY SERPA, LEIGH GREANEY, ERIC SCHEER, MIKE SWEENEY, JENNIFER HILL, GRACE WEIR, LISA KISKER AND OUR ALWAYS SUPPORTIVE FAMILIES AND FRIENDS

Dedicated to the enduring creative spirit of BILL CHERRY

Words and music by ROBERT CHERRY (BMI), except “A Sea Of Upturned Faces” and “Mystery Chord,” by ROBERT CHERRY and GUY VANASSE (BMI) ©2016

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Plastic Ants Cincinnati, Ohio

Progressive pop from Cincinnati, Ohio, featuring singer-songwriter Robert Cherry, bassist-producer John Curley, drummer Joe Klug, guitarist Robbie Reider and keyboardist-singer Guy Vanasse. In a world carved out by Plastic Ants you're only as tall as the height of your hopes. And things, well, they're looking up. ... more

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Track Name: Worry To Faith
WORRY TO FAITH Meet me where worry turns into faith, and we’ll wait for authorities to come. You fit the description of one who’s gone missing, a stranger who looks just like anyone of us. You can fight it, but the feeling won’t shake. You can hide, but time only takes all you have and all you want, when all you need is already gone. It’s already gone. Distant shadows turn in the light, the flash of approaching betrayal. There’s only one answer to give when they ask you, a kiss in an instant to telegraph truth. You can fight it, but the feeling won’t shake. You can hide, but time only takes all you have and all you want, when all you need is already gone. It’s already gone. You will not remember, so write it now. “Blah, blah, blah, blah something,” he said. Another year older, a few moments wiser. It slipped from your eyes, now there’s nothing left to give. You can fight it, but the feeling won’t shake. You can hide, but time only takes all you have and all you want, when all you need is already gone. It’s already gone.
Track Name: Imperial Phase
IMPERIAL PHASE Your golden teenage was your imperial phase, when the world was yours to take and take. Surfing the zeitgeist was quite nice, there up on the wave, but you had to know, it had to break. Don’t let the sun set on your golden state. Don’t let them tell you the turning tide won’t obey. Don’t let them see your faults or the fears that make you quake. Don’t let go of your hold. It’s just like S.E. Hinton said, stay gold. They took your lookbook and ripped up every page. They said your bling ring, it had to fade. The time for détente is long gone. They’re set to invade. But they don’t know, you’re gathering strength. Don’t let the sun set on your golden state. Don’t let them tell you the turning tide won’t obey. Don’t let them see your faults or the fears that make you quake. Don’t let go of your hold. It’s just like S.E. Hinton said, stay gold.
Track Name: A Sea Of Upturned Faces
A SEA OF UPTURNED FACES She don’t wait for permission. She makes up her own games. From a town with so little vision, baby, she ripped the script to pieces and tore away to the hills of California (uh-huh), where destiny awaits (she knows). The camera adores her (she thinks). She’s just a shot away. She wasn’t born into money, but the riches of her mind took her halfway to heaven in a Bentley, baby. Transcendent and resplendent, her dream car climbed through the hills of California (uh-huh), where destiny awaits (she knows). The camera adores her (she thinks). She’s just a shot away from the lights. You should see her brighter side, incandescent in the moonlight. Cue her next line and she may finally hit the heights and awake the world with starshine. It’s easy to get forgotten. It’s easy to exceed your stay. But she hasn’t reached the bottom, baby. With hands like wounded sparrows, she explains to a sea of upturned faces and the bullhorn down below. She’ll leave lasting traces, everyone will know, everyone will know, everyone will know.
Track Name: Destiny No Longer Awaits
DESTINY NO LONGER AWAITS Destiny no longer awaits. She grew tired of you playing it safe and the way you always hesitate at her bedroom door. Destiny no longer awaits. You live your life like it’s a video game. And the love you only simulate leaves her wanting more. Now you’re getting what you’re settling for as you’re sinking to the basement floor of your parent’s house. You’re getting what you’re settling for as you’re slipping to the molten core of her heart, and you’re cooling it off. Destiny no longer awaits. You were sleeping when she tiptoed away. So pour yourself a glass of sour grapes and mourn amour, ever more. Moan, moan, moan, now you’re all alone and you’re getting what you’re settling for as you’re sinking through the sagging foam of your parent’s coach. Now you’re getting what you’re settling for as you’re searching for the lost remote to her heart. But she’s already off. Destiny no longer awaits.
Track Name: The Girl Who Stole The World
THE GIRL WHO STOLE THE WORLD She slips from the scene as the sirens approach and cop lights collide against shadows and the smoke swirling overhead. No one’s princess doesn’t need no prince kiss, ’cause she already stole his whole world. Alone, all alone, is she best on her own, unburdened by alibis, gone before he knows ancient history? No one’s princess doesn’t need no prince kiss, ’cause she already stole his whole world. She’s getting away with more than her take. She’ll leave a hole in his heart. She’ll leave a hole where he once built a wall. He steps from the wreckage of her first attack. Now what would he give to get that moment back to relive again? No one’s princess doesn’t need no prince kiss, ’cause she already stole his whole world. She’s getting away with more than her take. She’ll leave a hole in his heart. She’ll leave a hole in his heart. She’ll leave a hole where he once built a wall.
Track Name: Magnetic Mind
MAGNETIC MIND Every thought still turns to you. My magnetic mind pulls the past close behind, leaving you stuck in my memory, proving you will always be my truth. Every thought still turns to you. My magnetic mind turns the world, shifts the tide, leading you to my vicinity, proving you will always be my truth. Every thought still turns to you, turns to you, turns to you. Every thought turns to you.
Track Name: Closer
CLOSER She is just a reverie and love a distant chance, rolling through your memory like a time-lapse avalanche. And so it goes, until all you know is the hope that grows and you let light in, and you let light in. Time pulls you closer to her heart. Wander lonely like a cloud and wonder what it means. You’d rather hear her call your name than drown in poetry. And so it goes, until all you know is the love you’ve shown and you let light in, and you let light in. Time pulls you closer to her heart.
Track Name: Mystery Chord
MYSTERY CHORD Domino, the notes descend. Let me know how this one ends. Rising up through your blood to your lungs lifting with air, flow the words to convince you we were always meant to be here. It begins where I end. Only you can reach out and catch me in mid-air. Only you can quell doubt and swallow up the fear. Throw the decades of mistakes and false starts on their ear. It begins where I end. Only you. The universe is not averse to the thought that you’re thinking. Everyone would love to see you in love. The universe is not averse to the song that you’re singing. Everyone would love to see you in love. Everyone would love to see you in love, in love.
Track Name: You Will Know Love
YOU WILL KNOW LOVE You will know love. You will finally find the one. You’ll turn around and you’ll be overcome. You’re so down now, you never want to leave the house. I’m here to drag you out and lift you up and turn your head around. Just when you think you’ll throw your hands up in the air, she’ll appear and make it all so crystal clear, why you’ve waited all these years, so alone, so alone. You will know love. You will finally find the one. You’ll turn around and you’ll be overcome, like a hammer to your skull. Just when you think you’ll throw your hands up in the air, she’ll appear and make it all so crystal clear, why you’ve waited all these years and wept through all those tears, so alone, so alone. Sooner than later, you’re gonna know better than to ever doubt. Sooner than later, you’re gonna know better when she smiles. Sooner than later, you’re gonna know better than to ever doubt. Sooner than later, you’re gonna know better when she smiles. Love, love, love has been here all along.
Track Name: Tintype
TINTYPE Strange how streets converge to take you back. The more you leave, the more you double-track. Medicine on Sundays for all the things you lack. Strange how streets converge to take you back. They don’t make faces like hers no more. The light it traces every weight she bore. By some strange graces she turned her back on their bruising phrases and their heart attacks. Tintype quits the static in your head. She owns no real estate inside your bed. Unconvinced she was alive till she was nearly dead. Tintype quits the static in your head. They don’t make faces like hers no more. The light it traces every weight she bore. By some strange graces she turned her back on their bruising phrases and their heart attacks. Impossibly young, impossibly young. They don’t make faces like hers no more. The light it traces every weight she bore. By some strange graces she turned her back on their bruising phrases and their heart attacks. Impossibly young. Strange how streets converge to take you back. The more you leave, the more you double-track.