Listen to this track by Chicagoan singer-songwriter and orchestral pop, and in this case without the orchestra, piano man Liam Hayes recording under the moniker Plush. It’s “Save The People”, the closing track to his 1998 debut record More You Becomes You.
This is the sound of an ambitious arrangement built up, and then stripped back again to just voice and piano. This is an after-hours sound, a sound of being solitary and indisposed due to a quiet struggle with life’s larger questions. It sounds like a prayer as uttered from the Holy Parish of Bacharach, yet with a vulnerable, and imperfect waver in the voice which reveals the human fragility at its core.
The sparse nature of whole arrangement, false start and all, is a big part of its charm. And, there’s something about the chords that ties it to something of that late ’60s vibe, with a dash of jazz, and then mixed with a shot of melancholy that works against it all – but in a good way.
The 1990s was a time when ideas of what was stylistically game as far as pop songwriting went were expanding. Or at least, the rulebook was being re-written. Easy-listening orchestral pop didn’t exactly round all of the bases in the previous decade. But, by the time Liam Hayes’ first Plush album came out, the melodious and melancholic quality of Jimmy Webb, Bacharach & David, Carole King, and the Carpenters were enjoying new appreciation in the work of newer bands and songwriters (Lambchop, Air), and being revisited by a few who’d been around for a while, too (Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell).
In this song, it’s that melancholic, partly overcast, gauzy quality, and (again!) those chords which is a perfect framework for a song about a world that is ultimately mystifying and even sorrowful, and one within which we as a people often feel bereft. The stark arrangement makes it sound like a hymn, albeit in a traditional pop vein. It asks a musical question, which is actually more like a plea: are you going to save us now? Hayes’ lazy, almost sleepy delivery is a wonderful contrast to the (literally) quiet desperation found here.
This song is a part of a musical seam that Hayes had been mining for a while. He had put out a single which helped to establish his approach; “Found A Little Baby” in 1994, which has a full band arrangement. But, the spirit of the material is exactly the same as is found on More You Becomes You which followed in 1998; that ’60s and early ’70s orchestral pop, easy-listening vein. In some ways, it’s the perfect example of pop music reclamation after a decade when the value of that tradition was largely forgotten, or even reviled. Maybe in the ’80s, that sound was not quite old enough to be considered new.
Liam Hayes, under the name Plush, has since released two other albums. Fed came out in 2002, and is more in line with that fuller band sound, even if the musical stream is something of a continuation. His third, Bright Penny, followed in 2009. Before the release of these follow-up records, he appeared in a very brief cameo as a piano bar musician in the 1999 film High Fidelity starring John Cusack. Perhaps he was playing himself, since the film is set in Chicago, Hayes’ hometown.
And speaking of films, Hayes’ most recent effort is the soundtrack album to Roman Coppola’s film A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III after Coppola became a Plush fan. The film is playing at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver tomorrow night!
You can buy the soundtrack on iTunes right now.
And for more information, check of the official website of Liam Hayes and Plush.