Graded on a Curve: Plateaus, (s/t)

San Diego’s Plateaus excel at the sort of small scale marriage of punk and pop that’s sure to make a fan of Red Kross stand right up and salute. Their self-titled debut LP hits all the right buttons and doesn’t stick around to wear out its welcome. And while it’s definitely earned a place on the shelf, unlike some of their cohorts, it doesn’t feel like they’ve maxed out their potential. Plateaus could be capable of more and the seeds of that hypothesis are found right here.

Don’t let the cover of the debut full-length from Plateaus give you the wrong impression. This isn’t the sort of crusty, cartoony faux-biker rock that infrequently appears in the racks, the product of an impulse which frequently attempts to celebrate trashy lowbrow culture (many getting the wrong idea and attempting a variance upon The Cramps) that is sadly plagued by a very low percentage of worthwhile aural returns. Most real bikers wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pool-stick; heavy-blues and boogie-rock tends to be the meat of the cycle-head’s musical meal.

And that’s not what Plateaus is offering at all. But if potentially misleading, their cover illustration does at least provide a sense of their general attitude; this isn’t art-rock, abstract experimental soundscapes, or any similarly-minded lofty stuff. No, Plateaus is a band high on energy if low on concept, landing pretty squarely between the polls of power-pop classique and early, pre-hardcore melodic punk. As such, they are working in a contemporary field that if not overcrowded can be assessed as being well populated with quality practitioners. The band don’t blow the doors off the style, but the contents of this album equal the promise of their prior work and mark them as a band definitely worth watching.

Comprised of drummer Jon Greene, guitarist/vocalist Kevin Gist, bassist Chris Rosi, and guitarist Elliot Moeller, Plateaus have some 7-inch records under their belt, one for Chicago signifier of quality HoZac and a few for hometown Art Fag Recordings, the label that’s also responsible for waxing up this debut. What I’ve heard of those short-players gives a good taste of the band’s no-frills approach, a sensibility that is well suited for the task of being one amongst many brief statements that hit a warm turntable in quick succession during a flurry of furious listening.

But holding interest over both sides of an LP has been the undoing of many a modestly scaled band. What’s required isn’t ambition so much as tenacity in songwriting and just as importantly, delivery. And Plateaus get off to a good start, storming out of the gate with the infectious and heavy “Blackout.” Sharp guitar sets the tone, the drumming is emphatic yet combines with the bass to provide weighty counterbalance to the momentum, and the vocals are spirited and placed evenly in the mix, not becoming overwhelming on the one hand or being steamrolled by the instrumentation on the other. And it’s over in a shade less than two minutes.

“Beach Coma” takes a nice bit of lyrical wordplay and weds it to a song that’s half a stomper and half an anthem. Drummer Greene possesses an excellent attack that often focuses on the toms and resists giving too much attention to the cymbals for instance, providing the music with weight through force where others would lessen the effect through the temptation to cover the whole kit. And the two guitars do a good job of blending but remaining distinct. I’ve no problem with waves of sludgey distortion, but it’s quickly apparent these are good solid pop songs that would be undermined by a lack of attention to sonic detail.

Not that Plateaus are engaging in a sound that’s particularly subtle, mind you; they just understand that a little clarity in execution goes a long way when the tunes are up to snuff. “The District” slows the tempo and shifts into a sturdy melodicism. And it works because it still sounds like the same band, forceful and energetic. It ends with a nice flourish of string licks, and feels like a prime candidate for addition to a pop-rock themed mix-tape.

It’s also the first song to break the two minute mark, and not by much. Plateaus are a lean band, one that seems to relish expressing the gist of their songs and once that’s accomplished, quickly moving on to the next. This is one of the great lessons of The Ramones, a trick that was absorbed by the best of the late-‘70s melodic punk crowd, particularly those based in sunny California, bands that clearly figure into the pool of influences that help shape Plateaus sound. “Oh Man” fits into that scheme of things quite nicely, but they are also savvy enough work up some tension and apply above-average song structure along the way; though also brief, “Oh Man” still connects as a fully developed tune.

“Jump Now” tosses in a strumming acoustic and hand-claps. But if less of a throttle, it still features some superbly gnawing yet still melodic electric. It’s unlikely that Plateaus will be getting any awards for variety, but what’s cool is how they strive, but don’t strain for range. “Better Things” is a case in point; suddenly the vocals are full of echo, almost submerged by waves of controlled guitar noise and Greene’s swells of cymbal. I’d be tempted to call it garage shoegaze, but the arrival of some cheap organ and Gist’s appealingly modest vocal style has me thinking of the early Flying Nun bands, one of Plateaus stated influences.

From there “Suzy” roughens things up a bit. It’s a little surfy (though these guys apparently don’t hang ten), flirts with becoming a rave-up in intensity, and Gist throws in some vocal swagger unlike anything that’s came before. It’s sure to get ‘em doing the pogo down at the club. At its core “Open Skies” is power-pop, but unlike Gentleman Jesse (to provide a simpatico yet distinct contemporaneous example), Plateaus are never not punk-derived on some level, and they are just as much about texture as hooks.

And that interest in texture is maybe most obvious on “Better Things” and “Swamp Thing,” where the melodies are partially enveloped in a hazy atmosphere (again through smart washes of cymbals and amp junk) that assists Plateaus in sounding a little fresher than the typical current power-pop/punk combo. But other additives also assist, like the splendid guitar squall opening of “Do it for You,” a cut that finds Greene whacking the toms again like a champ. The very impassioned vocal orientation of “Wasted Day” however, clearly references how they did it in the ‘70s.

And the way they did it in the ‘70s often looked back to how they did it in the ‘60s. Closer “Jasmine” throws in a big Spector-esque beat without getting too cutesy about it, and wraps up an album that doesn’t reach thirty minutes in length, its brevity feeling just right. And along the way, Plateaus do nothing wrong. They’ve worked their songs to a high level through obvious practice and without the loss of effectiveness that can result from becoming over-tight, and it’s pretty plain they’d deliver a memorable live set. Plus, succeeding in scoring a killer little album in a style that’s represented best by singles is an achievement worthy of praise, no bones about it.

So here’s kudos to Plateaus for a job well done. But as stated above, these guys are one amongst many acquitting themselves nicely in this field in the present. And it’s a scene that’s sorta antithetical to the reinventing of the wheel, but those hints of Flying Nun seem to portend that they have it in them to pen and perform a song or two attaining the level of the truly classic. Along with Gentleman Jesse & His Men’s Leaving Atlanta, Plateaus is one of the year’s best examples of how to take a refreshing no-big-dealness to a higher level. It’s a great party record, but with the proper attention to their strengths they could knock a few into the cheap seats.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+ 

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