If Stone Cloud, released by local rockers Plains a few weeks ago, doesn’t sound like it’s from 2014, that’s not an accident. Whether it’s in his come-hither ballads, poppy meanderings or psychedelic epics, songwriter and frontman Travis Swinford is shooting for timelessness.
The first reaction to the backwards-looking sound of Plains is to try and isolate the band’s influences, which isn’t too difficult to do. The hooky guitars and shimmering sound of early ‘70s glam are key ingredients to the band’s success, and Swinford, whose voice inhabits an eerily similar range to Lou Reed, admits to idolizing Reed, Bob Dylan and Stephen Malkmus.
From Lou Reed especially, Swinford takes a potent self-possession and particular definition of coolness. “People use the word ‘cool’ all the time, but when Lou Reed sings with his drawl, it’s a certain kind of cool,” Swinford said. “It’s like, ‘I know what I’m talking about, I’m talking to people who are listening, and I don’t have to beat people over the head with it. I’ve got millions of reasons to be angry, but I’m not. I’m cool. I know how to talk about what I’m talking about.’”
That tension between anger and coolness is the secret to understanding Plains’ appeal. Although the record generally sticks with an easygoing pop sensibility, it veers into dissonant atmospheres and sneaks in a great deal of longing and passion behind its disaffected veneer, particularly on the single, “Jessica”. To crib from Lou Reed, for all the white light in Stone Cloud, there’s plenty of white heat to match.
Not unlike his drummer, Drew Price, who makes atmospheric, synthy pop music with his band Drew Price’s Bermuda Triangle, Swinford is interested in selling moods, not stories. When asked about what his overriding themes were for Stone Cloud, Swinford replied, “Learning how to breeze through so many ideas at once” amid the deluge of information flooding the modern world. “Learning how to keep yourself in the midst of so many different ideas and so many different scenes.”
The goal, in that case, is reaching the same zone of pure intuition – and helping others to do the same – that so deeply characterizes the music of Swinford’s heroes. “I want to convey the sense of feeling really cool…while at the same time dealing with every single one of these thoughts,” Swinford said. “And I feel like really abstract lyrics come out of that; if you’re mind’s going all over the place…you’re going to sing something that’s coming from so many different contexts.”
Though Swinford’s lyricism isn’t cut-and-dried for easy consumption, it’s also never opaque or outright lazy, a charge some have leveled at Dylan and Malkmus, respectively. Rather, the whole feel of Stone Cloud, especially its early suite of stripped-down psychedelic songs, is resolutely welcoming. Swinford prefers to trust his audience to figure out the songs for themselves, as well as to take it at their own speed, laughing off the overt storytelling of folk and the manufactured energy of straight-ahead rock bands. “I want people to realize on their own what they’ve been listening to,” Swinford said of his low-key music.
Part of the friendly energy of Plains is Swinford’s ear for melody. Although Plains lacks the operatic scale that you’d typically find in the genre, “glam rock” is such an apt descriptor for the band’s music that it’s kind of shocking that Swinford only recently began using it to describe his work. Not only do the dynamics in Stone Cloud resemble those of bands like T. Rex, they also reflect a deeper theatricality than Swinford’s initial dry delivery would indicate.
“Glam is, like, you just put out a whole costume, a whole feel to each song,” Swinford said. “There’s such a theatrical feel to glam, where you have full faith in the idea that you’re trying to sell. You’re going to do it the way you want it to sound, and you don’t have to worry about whether it’s really ‘you’ or whatever. It’s more about being faithful to the sound of the song.”
For a record that does a remarkable job of selling each song individually, Stone Cloud also coheres well as a distinct, discrete album. Stone Cloud is, after all, Swinford’s personal vision, created over the course of several years of tinkering. More essentially, however, it’s an adaptation of the trips Swinford would take with his imagination while coming of age in small-town Tennessee, creating little worlds to share.
“It’s always been, like, ‘Take a trip with me.’ And there’s a negative version of that, like the Doors…but there’s also a positive Sesame Street kind of vibe – a bright-colored sweater, and everyone’s feeling friendly. I would love to be a Big Bird,” Swinford said with a laugh.
“The idea of feeling very cool, by yourself, alone,” Swinford continued, is “a lot like that scene in Freaks and Geeks where Bill is home alone…makes a cheese sandwich, is watching Garry Shandling, and he’s laughing his ass off. … You feel like you’re on top of the world, because you’re by yourself with something that makes you feel so cool.”
That quote explains much of Swinford’s abiding love for Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Stephen Malkmus, as well as getting at the heart of Stone Cloud’s appeal. In a world that’s simultaneously more isolated and more interconnected than ever before, the record is an opportunity – sometimes goofy, always catchy and heartfelt – to share in a certain kind of cool, for anyone who’s willing to take the chance.