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NewCityNet Piano Man

Plush makes a debut

By Mitch Myers

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  I'm hustling down to the corner of Jefferson and Roosevelt to meet Plush's Liam Hayes for a lunchtime interview at Manny's Delicatessen. Liam suggested it would be convenient for him, and besides, there's nothing like a little local color to spruce up a first encounter. Z

I'm not too worried about finding Liam, I've deduced that he'll be the long-haired fellow wearing some kind of groovy suit that elegant rock stars used to wear back in the day. The impetus for our little talk is Plush's debut album, "More You Becomes You" (Drag City), and the few facts I've garnered in advance (above and beyond the album) intrigue me.

In a nutshell, Plush has existed since 1995. Until now the band had only released two singles, but critical acclaim-especially in England-has been both profound and comprehensive. While he enjoys the support of Chicago music juggernauts like Jim O'Rourke and Steve Albini, Liam Hayes is actually a melodic throwback to the vintage singer-songwriters of the sixties. I've been urged to avoid questions about the obvious musical references that flow through Plush's music; that makes things sort of tough. I mean, if I can't gush about how this guy's idiosyncratic pop reminds me of musical greats like Harry Nilsson, Brain Wilson, Laura Nyro and maybe Burt Bacharach, what exactly are we supposed to discuss?

Quickly locating Liam, introductions are made and I get the tape recorder rolling. We determine that Liam is from Chicago and that he feels good about his album coming out. Hayes seems like a decent fellow, but is clearly uncomfortable with the interview process. He takes the questions seriously and gives the best answers he can, but something's missing. As he talks, my mind floats back to the oblique lyrical content of "More You Becomes You." The album is a remarkable song cycle featuring solo Liam on bare-bones piano and vocals. It's also the slowest, most unconscious pop record I've ever heard.

This disc stretches time elegantly and I've only just begun to decipher the multiple levels of subliminal communication exhibited. I ask Liam why the record was only recently released though it was recorded back in 1995. He stumbles over a painfully sincere attempt to explain, but in my mind I hear him singing a verse from the title song. Like all of Liam's lyrics, it's deceptively simple and sung repeatedly in a mantra-like fashion. He first croons wordlessly as the song's melody hangs half-suspended over his slow, insistent piano chords. Finally, Liam sings: "I live in sunny days my way. I live in sunny days my way. Now I'm free." Things begin to make sense.

We talk a bit about Liam's tendency to dress nicely. Liam also explains that while the new record is pretty much just him, Plush is a bona-fide entity which averages about two live gigs per year. Me? My mind's already drifting into another Liam Hayes composition for more answers. Something about, "I didn't know I was asleep. It took me so long to get my feet-back off the ground." Hayes' voice cracks badly at one point but he laughs through the bum note and rallies to capture another magnificent pop moment. The record is loaded with sublime encounters like these. Hayes' lilting voice and piano engage in simple patterns and quaint melodic messages that repeat themselves in shifting configurations until the song-cycle is refreshed.

The question isn't why Plush's album reminds me of ten mutant variations on Richard and Karen Carpenter's seminal pop moment, "Close To You," but why I passionately believe this to be a great thing. Liam Hayes has kindly presented us with his ongoing internal dialogue, and if that ain't close to you then I don't know what the hell is. I could elaborate on my assessment of Liam's eccentric, insular nature and his self-consciousness, but I'd only be guessing. How about these lines instead? "I saw the party look at me. They told me that I wasn't free. I showed them my soul power." Not exactly a haiku, but not bad. With miraculously implied orchestrations and nebulous melodic flair, Hayes' album performances hold together like some grand royal suite.

Plush's disc contains a vague, unified theme of one man's difficulty connecting with the world and believing in love and the pleasures of bursting into bloom. While some folks may wonder how many ways a guy can sing "Oooh yeah," I'm putting "More You Becomes You" on my Top Ten list for the year right now. No need to wait, the damage has already been done. Hold on! I've left Liam back at Manny's Delicatessen explaining himself at great length for your benefit. The only proper thing to do is close with another song reference. Ready? "Giving, receiving. I just can't believe what's happening to my mind. I'm a victim too, but I'm too big to hide. I can't hide." No, you can't hide Mr. Hayes. Not with stark pop confessionals like these.

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