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Are We Not Horses

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Album Review

If wariness is your initial reaction to a concept record about six-legged robot horses battling with the forces of good and evil, it probably should be. So much more to their credit then that Toronto's Rock Plaza Central manage to pull it off on their Yep Roc debut and second record, Are We Not Horses. Unfortunately for the concept, that's especially true if you take each song on its own merit and forget what one bandmember called the "cubist rock opera" behind them. Rock Plaza Central's music falls somewhere between country-rock and indie rock, with bits of the Band, Okkervil River, Palace and Neutral Milk Hotel surfacing as touchstones from time to time. Singer Chris Eaton's strained warble — part Jeff Mangum and part early Will Oldham — stands like a sentinel at the front gate to these ramshackle compositions; if Dave Berman's "all my favorite singers couldn't sing" adage resonates with you, then the rest of Are We Not Horses should reveal its many charms. The best songs — disc-opener "I Am an Excellent Steel Horse" and album high point "My Children, Be Joyful" — build slowly from subdued, single-instrument accompaniment for Eaton (usually fiddle, banjo or acoustic guitar) into frantic, strings- and horns-driven hoe-downs with full-throated singalong choruses. The septet's other songs work on a smaller though no less urgent scale: "How Shall I to Heaven Aspire" features glockenspiel over its insistent (and too repetitive) guitar thrum; "Anthem for the Already Defeated" uses clanking percussion, fiddle, trombone and accordion to evoke a semi-successful Tom Waits/DeVotchKa gypsy hybrid; "When We Go, How We Go (Part I)" is a gorgeous slice of Appalachia; "Our Hearts Will Not Rust" is the best song Palace never recorded, and the title cut's muted horns make for a noir-ish, jazzy Calexico vibe. Eaton's authored two novels in Canada, and there's plenty of evocative imagery and memorable aphorisms in the songs that don't require expertise in robot horse lore. In fact, several songs don't seem to have much at all to do with the overarching concept ("08/14/03" refers to the great power blackout that hit the East on that date). Much of the story behind the record is an extension of the band's first record, which at the time of Are We Not Horses' release had yet to be issued in the U.S. But in the end, it's the conviction Eaton sings with and the songs' loose, live-to-tape feel that makes this record memorable, no matter what the story is behind it.


Formed: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '00s

Although Toronto novelist Chris Eaton performed as a solo artist in the late '90s and early 2000s under the name Rock Plaza Central (sometimes with any number of backing musicians), it wasn't until 2003 that Rock Plaza Central became a real band, recruiting Rob Carson (guitar, banjo, trombone), John Whytock (accordion, trumpet, percussion), Donald Murray (mandolin, trumpet), Scott Maynard (bass), and Blake Howard (drums) -- with Fiona Stewart (violin) joining in 2004 -- before releasing The World...
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Top Albums and Songs by Rock Plaza Central

Are We Not Horses, Rock Plaza Central
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