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Plastic Palace Alice - Through The Looking Glass

Author: Carlisle Rogers
Thursday, 1 May 2008
3D’s Carlisle Rogers talks to Rob McDowell from Melbourne’s Plastic Palace Alice about their debut album and live vs studio.

Plastic Palace Alice’s debut album, The Great Depression, is one of those ambitious albums that comes across my desk every once in a while: layered, lush, hypnotic, but not my favourite album upon first listen.

Then, a few days later you put it back on and you start to dig what producer Jonathan Burnside was getting at, what the singers were feeling, and the melodies tend to haunt you a little bit.

Haunt is a good word, because opener Empire Falls is David Bowie, Hunky Dory era, channelled. It’s quite uncanny, really. Singer Rob McDowell doesn’t seem to realise it, but he’s thankful he doesn’t come out sounding like Celine Dion. But it is Burnside’s influence that really makes or breaks this album. The songs are strong enough, if a little same-y. The lyrics are brilliant, but buried by what might be called Sleepy Jackson-esque production values, or glam-ified Phil Spector. Sometimes, too much really is too much.

“I’ve been a fan of his production work with other people,” McDowell says of Burnside. “I really like the Sleepy Jackson record and The Melvins record too. I was interested to see what he was up to and if he had the time and enthusiasm for what we were doing and luckily he did. Basically we just gave him a call and he said yes. He’s got a studio down in Melbourne called Eastern Bloc Studios, so we did it there.

“We were working for the government in a roundabout way. It’s all about biting the hand that feeds you. We started the record with our own money and ran out of that pretty quickly. We really wanted to finish the album and the only way to do that was to apply for a grant. We were lucky enough to get it and that helped us finish the project. They’ve been very kind to us and helped us out a couple times. For the grant, it’s basically all about measuring how much you can do for the Victorian arts culture. It was a big arts funding programme that we applied for and we were just able to present it to them in a way that we were happy with and they were happy with. It was pretty easy.”

Live, the band sounds fantastic, with all of the thickness they are capable of without the added layers from the studio. “We are getting a pretty big sound at the moment just because there are six of us. We started playing a lot of new stuff, which has been really exciting for us because this album has been on the shelf for about a year. I think our sound has changed quite a bit since the album was recorded, so in terms of playing the songs on the album, they sound quite full and thick. There is a lot of stuff we can’t play live, like the strings and the brass, so in terms of trying to allow for the lack of those sounds, we put in different guitar parts and that sort of thing.”

McDowell says that The Great Depression isn’t really a topical album, it’s more of a personal journey. “It was meant as a joke, not necessarily a serious statement,” he says. “I don’t want to come across as bleak and shit. I like the title because it’s as much about someone’s personal story as it is about a political story. For me, that is what the album tries to merge together, the personal and the wide range of life. I write using a combination of piano and guitar. Different songs have different starting points, but most of the songs are pretty old. I’ve had this album in my head for a couple of years before we were able to record it and even before we had a band. My memory is pretty hazy when it comes to writing half of it, but most of it was written on a piano.

“I’ve never stopped writing songs, so I think about four or five years ago, I looked a the collection of songs I had and began to figure out which songs would go with other songs. These twelve, actually I think it was eleven at the time because the first track Empire Falls was only written a year ago of so, but the other ones were all written individually without other songs in mind. But it just seemed to work as a collection when I compiled them together in my head. They told a story.”

Empire Falls is the big catch right at the start of the album, and it was released last year as a single, prompting a little salivation here and there. But McDowell says it isn’t indicative of the direction of the rest of the album, for better or worse. “The radio played it which was nice, so we were able to get a few more people that way. I think the album is pretty different from that song. There is a lot more range and scope on the album, which will hopefully surprise a lot of people. We dropped the single because it seemed to be more of a single than anything else on the album. I’m not very good at knowing which songs work for the radio, so everyone seemed to say this one would be a good radio song. We put it out and in retrospect I don’t know if that was the right thing to do in terms of giving people the impression that we play the type of music we play.

“If you’ve heard the album, it’s a pretty wide palette with different colours in the music. The lyrics kind of tie what’s going on musically. Whenever there is a more personal reflective song, things go a bit quieter, but when the lyrics are wider in scope and talking about people and politics, then the music is a bit bigger. That blend of lyric and music is probably what holds it.”

WHO: Plastic Palace Alice
WHAT: The Great Depression distributed through Inertia / Play Hopetoun Hotel
WHEN: Out now / Friday 9 May