Virginia Plane – s/t EP

Virginia Plane - s/t EP

It was three years ago that we last heard from Mary O. Harrison, the Georgia-based singer/songwriter who has recently recast herself as the driving force behind folk-pop outfit Virginia Plane.  Her one and only solo effort, Factory of Days (2008), was a fairly candid record – though imbued with occasional chamber pop flourishes, it dutifully stuck to a confessional aesthetic that placed the greatest emphasis on Harrison’s guileless voice.  Virginia Plane may exhibit a more palpable group dynamic than Factory, but it is without question still the brainchild of Harrison, whose pristine fusion of power-pop jangle and folksy lamentation manages to be both unassuming and unsettling.

For their self-titled EP, Harrison assembled a team of multi-instrumentalists that includes Tracy Clark, Govind Dixit, and McGregor Button, who collectively perform on everything from bass and keyboard to melodica and even a typewriter.  With a full band backing her up, Harrison’s songwriting in Virginia Plane readily harkens back to the feminist alternative rock salvo of the early 90s, perpetrated by artists like Juliana Hatfield and Liz Phair but ridden to mainstream notoriety a few years later by the likes of Letters to Cleo and Veruca Salt.  This is pointed out not as a barb, but as the most plausible explanation as to why thoughts of the Reality Bites soundtrack and Friends filtered into my subconscious as I listened to tracks like “Aquarium” and “Sugar-Coated.”  Plaintive and playful, the former displays Harrison’s dulcet coo, spunky drumming, melodica harmonies, and unguarded lyrics (“There’s an arrow in your eyes / not really cruel / but it cuts me down to size”).  The bittersweet tone comes through without exigence, thanks to a lack of any reverb-affected vocals.  “Sugar-Coated” is a surging power-pop number, bolstered by strummy guitars and an abundance of tambourines and hand claps.

The EP’s other fare is more divergent.  The ethereal shimmer and medieval British imagery of “Idiot Soup” sound like the template for a PJ Harvey b-side from Let England Shake, but Harrison’s lyrical reassurances (“I’m not like the other girls / no need to fear me”) and flute solo in the song’s coda cast things in a decidedly less acerbic atmosphere.  If it featured less guitar and more snark, “That’s a Lie” could pass for midtempo piano rock, à la Ben Folds.  Closing number “Old Fashioned Girl” is the consummate swan song, optimistic and reaffirming while still retaining an air of whimsy thanks to the tapping textures of Tracy Clark’s Royal Companion typewriter.

The interpersonal relationships of Virginia Plane represent a notable and welcome change in M.O. from Mary O. Harrison’s solo days, and yet it’s “Wash It Clean” – the album’s only track devoid of additional players – that makes this record’s most memorable statement.  Clocking in at less than two and a half minutes, the song’s spare palette of vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine, and whistling exude an unfettered vibe that is often buried on other tracks.

Some may still be put off by the occasionally precious tone with which Harrison still manages to pepper her songs (and her seeming lack of interest in stretching her vocal range), but Virginia Plane’s debut EP represents a discernible and welcome shift in game plan, giving new breadth and depth to the melodies and narratives she already had a penchant for crafting.