These guys are a bit dirtier than the rest, and it’s not just the press photo-a hauntingly accurate prediction of what my apartment would devolve into if my girlfriend ceased to visit and demand a socially-acceptable minimum of hygiene and socially-acceptable maximum of substance abuse. In the Pulitzer-worthy shot, we get the obligatory group of mostly-bearded dudes who, let’s face it, are obviously musicians, seated around a table about to collapse under the weight of several handles of booze, cans of red bull, and cups filled to various degrees with unknown liquids that could have been left out for days and, odds are, were used as ashtrays at some point or another, although they don’t appear to have done much good because most of the ash ended up on the table anyway. Upon closer examination, we wonder why the top half of a water bottle is just sitting out there and for what sketchy purpose it was sawed off at the middle-perhaps an improvised smoking device, although there’s certainly enough rolling papers around that it wouldn’t have been necessary, even if it would have been possible thanks to the requisite roll of duct tape. In the background, we notice bookshelves crammed with impressive tomes that appear to have received a lot of love, of which by far the most visible title reads, New York City. How perfect.
Yes, Clear Plastic Masks is a bit dirtier than the rest, and it’s not just the name, which frontman Andrew Katz explains was inspired by a male friend he watched perform under the female alter-ego Anita Fix and who, dressed in a slutty miniskirt and a flimsy blouse unbuttoned to the navel, wore a clear plastic mask layered thick with lipstick and mascara. “It was fucking mesmerizing,” Katz recalls, and I don’t doubt him at all. To top it off, apparently, the name was also chosen to evoke the “the great” Bill Lambeer, who twice led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA Championships, but is best remembered as one of the most notorious foulers to ever set foot on the court. That’s certainly not the most palatable set of influences, and begs the question of just what kind of image the band hopes to conjure. I should probably add that the name Clear Plastic Masks was only decided upon after careful deliberation. “We were trying to find something hip and catchy that the kids would like like The Dongs or The Biscuit Fuckers but got sick of the search and decided to go full weirdo instead,” Katz elaborates, and I can’t quite tell whether he’s sincere, sarcastic, or somewhere in between.
With the music itself, the focal point becomes not so much the inherent grit but the deceptively clean faá§ade. There are plenty of bands that sound a lot filthier than Clear Plastic Masks. We’ve probably even reviewed a few of them on Ampeater. What makes this artist special is how the grime is hidden behind the proverbial clear plastic mask. And, the important thing to remember about this plastic mask is that it’s clear, so you can still see what’s on the other side.
Take A-Side “Working Girl,” for instance, which conjures a false sense of comfort rooted in familiar archetypes-a timeless chord progression, a sensual soul groove, smooth electronic organ, etc. However, the astute listener will sense from the start that the mix is a bit off. The murky outline of some deviant madness taints the music and, as the composition unfolds, peels away at the re-appropriated faá§ade. Lo-fi production is one obvious culprit. The huge dynamic range and natural delivery of Katz’s vocals is accentuated every time he overdrives the mic. The grungy distortion also makes the whole mix seem much louder, favorably evoking a bootleg 8-track aesthetic. That said, Clear Plastic Masks is definitely a band that excels in the live setting and, let’s face it, the kind of venue where this music would feel most at home is a place where the sound is inevitably terrible but the volume is so high you don’t notice-the kind of place that smells like Bill Lambeer’s old locker and where you leave with a lingering ringing in your ears.
These endearingly off-putting qualities have earned Clear Plastic Masks a number of comparisons to the Black Keys. However, to me, it seems a lot less premeditated. Plenty of bands embrace the do-it-yourself craze as a way to grow themselves a fake set of balls-to feign the grit of authenticity-but Clear Plastic Masks employs it so convincingly that it seems essential rather than superficial. You won’t be fooled by (nor does the band hope to fool you with) the sleek Motown vibe which obscures the true grime like a blast of Ferbreze might obscure the stench of sex and cigarettes in a cheap motel room. If Marvin Gaye is the kinda music that makes you wanna turn the lights down low and get it on, this music is about getting laid and, if you happen to turn the lights down low, it’s just so you don’t notice the bedbugs and bloodstains on the mattress.
If production alone is not enough to ripple the conventional gloss, we get the lyrics, which are refreshingly honest and rife with sexual innuendo. I can’t help but respect Katz’s plea to the working girl: “if all my morning daydreams came true, I just might spend my day working on you!” Yet some of lyrics are less metaphorical than one might expect. For instance, the line about being distracted by the beautiful girl on the freeway and driving out of the lanes is straightforward narration. “We all used to work as movers together, Matt and Charlie still do, riding around in a box truck all day carrying peoples shit and watching the world go by and I guess this song just came out of all of that, all the incredible girls you see cruising around this town.” Sure, you can joke that these guys have earned the right to wear the trucker hats that so many hip indie rockers wear ironically, but I think we’d be missing the more important point. These straightforward and uncontrived references endow the music with an authentic or deep seeded sense of the blues, a term I use not as a genre but as a state of mind.
B-Side “Pegasus in Glue” is a lot louder and heavier than “Working Girl” , but seems to stem from the same general philosophy. Here, the clear plastic mask that the artist dons appears to come from the classic punk rock tradition, an influence we hear most clearly in the half-sung/half-chanted chorus, and in the enormous drum fills. Yet, after the second verse, the composition spirals into a loud but vaguely psychedelic melee of sounds. Even though it only lasts for minute, it creates the impression of being stuck in a never-ending trip, and debunks all attempts to pigeonhole the artist within a particular norm. The digression evokes the unsettling soundtrack to a broken merry-go-round, sometimes dragging at half-speed, other times spinning faster and faster.
Clear Plastic Masks is pretty unabashed about its influences. The artist makes no pretentious claims to be original or unprecedented. Katz explains that the impetus for “Working Girl” came from a lick stolen from an Otis Redding tune-which he promptly adds was also used by the Beatles and a million other song writers-and which he crafted into his own composition with the guidance of guitarist and keyboardist Matt Menold. With “Pegasus in Glue” , the influences are even more specific and, to an extent, absurd. Katz recounts how the heavy bass and drums remind him of a “funk version of the theme from Space Odessy 2001 in the movie Being There in the scene when Chauncey Gardner first leaves the confines of his father’s house and hits the rough streets of D.C. for the first time.” Call it a delusion of grandeur, call it genius, but these confessions also tap into an important recognition that most music amounts to little more than a combination of all the weird shit we’ve soaked in over our lives and all the weird shit floating around in our minds.
On that note, I feel that Clear Plastic Masks ought to be viewed as a found artist. The band takes disperse elements that have been cast out on the sidewalk and rearranges them in a way that their former owners would probably not approve of but-lo and behold-work a lot better than the rejected originals. And, as a pleasant byproduct, the result has the feel of an instant classic. When I hear Clear Plastic Masks, I hear an old hit played back on a transistor radio in a post apocalyptic future on the heap of junk and ruins that used to be Manhattan. Maybe you’ll hear something different, but I encourage you to let your imagination run wild. Just remember to wash your hands afterwards.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem141/01 Working Girl.mp3