Sexy is back, and it is different from before. Toronto indie band Rock Plaza Central, which makes music that is curious, literate and rustic, has gained notice for its recent cover of SexyBack, previously a hit for pop star (and now actor) Justin Timberlake.
But where the sleek, young Timberlake sang with so much swagger -- overdone as to be unintentionally ridiculous -- Rock Plaza Central's brooding roots-rock translation is an improbable success.
That is a critical and artistic success, mind you -- the track is not available commercially, though a hilarious version of it set to Timberlake's original video can be seen at YouTube.com. Online music tastemaker Coke Machine Glow chose Rock Plaza Central as one of its favourite artists of 2006. And the group's album Are We Not Horses -- a rustic, brooding and occasionally yelping disc about robotic ponies who think they're real -- was an underground hit, favourably reviewed by another cyber music journal, Pitchfork.
When the band (a rambling seven-piece brass-and-banjo ensemble) performed the tune recently at Toronto's Tranzac Club, the crowd sniggered initially, perhaps less by what they heard than what they saw. The group, with its Sunday-best suits and an unassuming manner, looked vaguely Mennonite, particularly bearded front man Chris Eaton, a small-eyed singer-songwriter with an $8 haircut and a wavering voice.
"I'm bringin' sexy back," Eaton began, with no ironic smile, "them other boys don't know how to act." As the band plucked along, the song took on a more frightening air than Timberlake could ever hope to achieve, with a line about shackles, slaves and "I'll let you whip me if I misbehave."
Nobody laughed much when the song was finished. In fact, it received a warm round of applause, which is fine by Eaton, who didn't undertake the cover tune as some left-field lark.
"The concept has been going around in my head for a while," he says. "The idea of taking someone else's work and making it more of a collaboration is something that's always appealed to me."
Eaton is also an author, and characterizes his second novel, The Grammar Architect, as a cover of a Thomas Hardy book. "Theoretically, anyways," he adds.
As far as Eaton knows, unwitting collaborator Timberlake, who performs in Toronto tonight and Montreal tomorrow, hasn't heard his version of SexyBack.
Initially, Eaton thought of recording a song by a like-minded artist -- someone such as Mountain Goat or Bonnie Prince Billy -- but he eventually headed farther a field. SexyBack was in the key of A minor, a country chord, and the call-and-response of the song appealed to him. In Eaton's hands, an urban-music pop hit (a goofy one, really) became a dark, loping sing-along.
On stage at the Tranzac, the band doesn't look the part of college-rock darlings. All in their 30s, the bookish members improvise within the loose framework of each song played. They enjoy the moment they're in, but there's no sense that Rock Plaza Central is a professional outfit, even now, as things begin to get serious.
The new album (its second) is distributed nationwide by Outside Music, and the band recently signed a deal with Yep Roc records in the United States. The momentum was unexpected. "We had been told by a lot of people what we should do to make our band a successful business," says Eaton, who works part-time as an advertising copywriter. "But we didn't know how to do that, so instead we just make music -- we made the record."
The band's uncertain status as a full-time proposition was, in part, the identity crisis that informed the album's theme: Are We Not Horses is an allegorical reference to the musicians' own questions, "What makes a band real, and are we one of them?"
In the end, Eaton realized that worrying about the group's status was fruitless. On the album's final track, We've Got a Lot to be Glad For, the steel stallions abandon their attempt to find out their purpose, deciding instead to ride off toward the distant lights.
"You should be happy with who you are and just enjoy it," Eaton says. "All the time you spend worrying about it is time wasted."
Many will find that attitude to be refreshing.
Some will even think it -- dare it be said -- sexy.