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Music Review: The Colorplates – “Agony and Ecstasy”

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Front cover sq 320How a band I had never heard of that has music more than 30 years old could have made me feel nostalgic is a mystery I’m not sure I understand. But those feelings of nostalgia were dominant while listening to The Colorplates’ collection of previously unreleased tracks from 1979 through 1982, Agony and Ecstasy. Of that, I am sure. A Seattle based band who describes their music as “equally (though not exclusively) inspired by Ornette Coleman and the Dave Clark Five,” The Colorplates rock with the passion of youthful rebellion, using their music as a sonic metaphor for the absurdity of the world they find around them.

Fast-forward 25 years. One member of the group winds up fronting his own record company, there are these old, never released recordings laying around going to waste, and who says there are no second acts? Agony and Ecstasy may not make them champs, but if it evokes for others the same nostalgia for lost youth that it evoked for me, it will make for a lot of happy campers.

The album’s liner notes explain that the band began as an “improvisation unit” called The Pigments. The Pigments begat The Adults. The Adults begat The Colorplates. They played mostly in punk joints around Seattle, “mostly for friends, but occasionally for sailors.”  Now you take some of that improv genetics, put it in a punk environment when punk itself is moving on, and you get some idea of what The Colorplates are doing on this release. It’s what the album calls “Post-Punk Art Rock.”  It is anarchic chaos—free jazz on steroids with a shot of the Talking Heads. It is never very pretty, but pretty can be overrated. At its best, it can be electric. At its worst, noise.

Most of the album’s 21 tracks are original compositions by two of the band’s members, multi- instrumentalists Tom Dyer and Harvey Tawney, and bassist Bob Blackburn is also credited for one tune entirely. The fourth member of the band is drummer Deanne Tawney.  There are five covers: “My Little Red Book” (Bacharach/David), a wild take on the saccharin Ervin Drake song “It Was a Very Good Year,” The Doors’ “Break on Through (To The Other Side),” “Help!,” and a really exciting version of “Purple Haze.” A video of the latter is available at greenmonkeyrecords.com.

The disc ends with four improvisations on which the band is joined by a gaggle of other musicians. The sound quality varies, but it is usually acceptable.

That The Colorplates, like most local bands, never made it to the larger stage is less a commentary on the quality of their music than on the kinks and quirks of the music business. You listen to their music and it is clear that with a little luck, they could have been a contender.

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About Jack Goodstein