It's unsettling when you find out an album you really like isn't well-regarded by its creators.
In 2012, the Montreal-based trio Plants and Animals released The End of That, 11 tracks of frayed nerves, jangly guitars and singer Warren C. Spicer's mundane, bleakly comforting lyrics, intoned like a Lou Reed B-side. "I tried the cocaine, just to know what it could do," Spicer sings on the title track, "I had to try it again just to give it a second chance / but it tore out my soul, passed out, crashed out on a mat / and that was the end of that." If there was something not to love — or on the drone-filled psych-rock number "2010" or the waltz-time rocker "Lightshow" — I didn't find it.
The End of That was a difficult record to make, Spicer said, because of a number of pressures facing the band at the time. "We weren't communicating as a group," he said, "and it happened very quickly. We didn't have the time to sit back and decide: let's redo this track, let's change this part, and so on. It was a moment of time when we did it, and it kind of felt like it was a record that was going to somewhere else."
That feeling of disappointment — shared, Spicer suggested, by bandmates Nic Basque and Matthew Woodley — led to a faith crisis of sorts: how do you go out and promote an album you don't love? One solution, Spicer said, was to simply keep recording, as though it never happened. "We didn't want to scrap it," Spicer said, "but in order to deal with feeling like we didn't make the record we wanted, we've been working ever since. I think that was the only way of dealing the feeling of releasing something you weren't totally happy with."
They also picked up a bass player — old friend Eric Digras — and toured extensively, fleshing out the songs live and trying to suss out the next direction. "That changed everything," Spicer said of adding Digras. "We were able to simplify a lot of things… You can't do funky without the bass player. We had resisted for a long time and then decided to do it."
Plants and Animals returns to the Northeast for the first time in a year, with shows at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on Nov. 8 and a Nov. 13 appearance at BAR in New Haven. Before and after this mini-tour, they'll continue to work on their next release, with the luxury of time. Spicer, who produces records by other artists, said the next one will come from more of a joyful place.
"We've basically just tried to take away all the pressures that were on us," Spicer said. "We just wanted to make a record in the most relaxed way possible. We go to the studio in town. We'll work for four days. There's nobody else involved. If we don't come up with anything, it's not a big deal." In the past, unproductive studio time took a toll on their wallets and outlook. Now, that's what they want to avoid. "It's more of a workshop situation," Spicer said. "We need to make a lot of discoveries while we're working on stuff."
For the three schooled musicians, The End of That departed from Plants and Animals' two previous, playfully produced, less-somber offerings. During the process, the decision was made to strip back and produce songs as they came, without too much calculation. "I think in hindsight we wanted to do something that was spontaneous and not terribly overly thought-out," Spicer said. "We'd work on songs and try to capture them. We'd add the least amount of stuff afterward." Fans dug the results ("Lightshow" charted in Canada), but stateside critical response was mixed. "I think there's a definite tension on the last record," Spicer said. "There's a shadowy quality to it. It's not necessarily the easiest thing to listen to. I feel like now the music is less tense. We're less tense."
Spicer, when he's not working on new songs, picks up influences from other records he's mixing. Blues lifer Taj Mahal is in heavy rotation these days. "He's able to make everything he does sound welcoming and joyful, even if the topics are sad and mournful," Spicer said. The next Plants and Animals record, which could take another year or two to finish, is "going to be a joyful album." "We don't have anybody telling us when we have to release it… We'll work on it until it's exactly what it's going to be." Part of that process involves reaching beyond their initial impulses, which didn't happen with The End of That.
"We're just challenging ourselves to be more creative," Spicer said. "Sometimes it's a simple song, and that's fine, but sometimes we'll try to make it into a song with more depth... I think we've made it a priority to use all the tools we have. Whatever the first three ideas are: what's the fourth?"
Plants and Animals
Nov. 8 (w/ Pale Cowboy), 10 p.m., $10-$13, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, iheg.com; and Nov. 13 (w/Kindred Queer), 9 p.m., free, BAR, 254 Crown St., New Haven, manicproductions.org