By Eleni P. Austin
“Ever since the world began, every woman every man, face what they know is true, that we’re all passing through, and it’s measured out in time, and the things we leave behind.” That’s David Plenn, reflecting on the passage of time, the legacies of fathers and sons and what it all means on “The Things We Left Behind” from his new, self-titled album. You’re forgiven if you say you’ve never heard of David Plenn, but isn’t it about time that you got acquainted?
David Plenn officially began his music career back in the late ‘60s, at the tender age of 16, he was guitarist in Thumper. There was enough of a buzz about the band that they were signed to A&M Records. Although they only recorded a handful of singles, they tested their mettle on stage, opening for bands like Savoy Brown, The Grass Roots, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner. It was a heady time, while Thumper never got their moment in the sun, David forged a lifelong connection with their producer, Jerry Riopelle.
A musician ae well as a producer, Jerry had inked a solo deal with Capitol Records and asked David to handle lead guitar chores. Before he knew it, he was sharing stages with Fanny and The Kinks. He spent the rest of the ‘70s and ‘80s making music with Jerry across 12 albums. Despite the fact that he never really broke nationally, he had a passionate following throughout the Southwest. When he passed away in 2018, The Arizona Republic newspaper referred to Jerry as “Phoenix’s Elvis.”
In-between his commitment to Jerry, David carved out a career as an in-demand songwriter. His songs were included on hit albums from Kenny Loggins and Robert Cray, and his music was featured in TV series like Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and Touched By An Angel. At that point, he and his wife had welcomed their son, Taylor into the world. David began reevaluating his priorities.
Although he had been earning his keep as a touring musician for decades, he didn’t want to follow his father’s footsteps, as an itinerant trombone player who ended up abandoning his family altogether. David decided to put his music career on the backburner and concentrate on family life. Now that his kid is a full-grown adult, the time seemed right to record his self-titled debut.
The first three tracks get the album off to an audacious start. “What Used To Be (Is Killing Me)” matches growly, bottleneck lead guitar, ringing baritone riffs, sinewy bass and undulating congas with a chunky shuffle rhythm. David’s deadpan delivery and withering bon mots can’t disguise a broken heart; “Today I threw away your toothbrush, things were looking up, I drank my morning coffee from your favorite coffee cup, I started to throw away your picture, and found I’m not so strong. we used to be lovers and most days that’s alright, but what used to be is killing me tonight.” Scabrous bottleneck notes punctuate each verse, detonating like smart bombs. Sugary, shang-a-lang guitars breeze through the break, indicating better days lay ahead.
If Jackson Browne and Marshall Crenshaw ever saw fit to collaborate, it might sound something like “C’mon, Yvonne.” Soaring slide guitar riffs crest atop prickly piano notes, thrumming bass and a rollicking backbeat. David’s mien is playful as he coaxes a sad, cynical girl to throw caution to the wind and perhaps become somebody’s baby; “C’mon, Yvonne, you’ve been bluer than a month of Mondays, you keep pining your hope on somedays, tonight that’s going to end.” A slide solo on the break blasts into the stratosphere. Although his intentions aren’t completely altruistic, the lyrics manage a moment of clarity; “Just one more thing, don’t let other people define you, if your heart is the star that guides you, you’re gonna be alright.”
On the aforementioned “The Things We Left Behind,” jangly acoustic guitars partner with wily bass, plaintive piano and a tick-tock beat. A mordant meditation on the eternal, paternal disconnect, the power that memories wield and the crushing weight of grief. Recollecting his own father’s absence and inconsistencies, David vows to chart a different course; “I’ve got a message for my son, someday you’ll get my money and guitars, that old Gibson came from Joe, it was written in the stars/Did I make you feel loved? Did I teach you to be kind? I hope that tops the list of the things I leave behind.”
Both “Lover’s Lullaby” and “Underneath The Overpass” linger in the shadows and on the margins. The former is smoky and Sinatra-esque, sharing some musical DNA with Squeeze’s gorgeous lament, “When The Hangover Strikes.” Fueled by percolating electric piano, hangdog bass, muted trumpet and piquant guitars, conversational lyrics join the mis en scene in progress. Post-coital bliss gives way to doubts and insecurities; “You got your ghosts, Baby, I’ve got my demons, let’s put ‘em aside for a while, I’m diving deep, tonight we’ll sleep to a lover’s lullaby.”
The latter boasts the blowsiest saxophone wail this side of romeo void’s “Never Say Never.” An angular slice of Noir-ish New Wave, it’s propelled rippling keys, slinky bass lines and shuddery percussion. Originally written in the ‘80s, lyrics paint a vivid portrait of a homeless situation that has only spiraled out of control over the last four decades; “Underneath the overpass, shattered like broken glass, she sits and cries, hands to her eyes, underneath the overpass.”
David deftly leapfrogs through a plethora of styles on this record, so it’s no surprise that the best songs here sound like nothing that’s come before. “Same Planet/Different World” is a lithe, elastic rocker, anchored by propulsive guitar licks, fluttery keys, tensile bass lines and an impossibly catchy handclap rhythm. Droll vignettes indicate in these divisive times, it’s easier to dwell on our differences rather concentrate on consensus; “Turn on the radio dial, it’s just yak, yak, yak, they call it Freedom of Speech, man, it just sounds like talkin’ smack/They’ve all got an axe to grind, or a cross to bear-or a stone to throw, somebody say a prayer, same planet, living in a different world, same planet, different world.” Crosscut guitars singe across the break, followed by a cowbell-riffic bridge, as rapprochement seems impossible; “They’re standing toe-to-toe, they can’t see eye-to-eye, you lost me at ‘hello,’ You’ll find me at the door just waving bye-bye.” Swoopy organ notes and fuzz-crusted guitars race for the finish line on the muscular outro.
Meanwhile, giddyup guitar and do-si-do bass are tethered to a clip-clop gait on “Tucson.” This twangy two-step chronicles a journey, that’s equal parts travelogue and restless farewell; “Drove past those San Jacinto windmills, turning like the hands of time, seems like we’re speeding to a standstill, doing our best to read the signs/Feels like this road goes on forever, that’s what they say until it ends, and I’m just headed out to Tucson, to say goodbye to a friend.” Wrestling with one’s mortality seems to be the record’s leitmotif, truly, the only certainty in this life is death. As chicken-scratch guitars see-saw on the break, one thing becomes clear, it’s up to us to enjoy the ride, wherever it takes us.
Other interesting tracks include the wistful “Memorial Day” and the aching “Mercy For The Child.” The album closes with “Follow Your Dreams.” Filigreed acoustic fretwork gently washes over airy keys, spidery bass and a sturdy backbeat. A tender benediction, it takes a page from Bob Dylan’s playbook, echoing his epochal “Forever Young.” Lyrics offer up a bit of sagacious advice and hoping the best for the next generation; “The future is yours like the rising sun, just remember your past and where you come from, let the strength of your words equal you deeds, follow your dreams baby, wherever they lead,” A poignant and pragmatic end to a great record.
This is a solo album in name only. David managed to corral a wily wolfpack of pickers, players and longtime compadres to create this true labor of love. Drummers Jay Bellarose and David Goodstein kept the beat. Bassists Jenny Condos, James “Hutch” Hutchinson, Ethan Moffit and Lloyd Moffit held down the bottom (Ethan and Lloyd also added mandolin, violin, viola, kitchen sync, keys, percussion, pink noise and good ice!). More keys were provided by Tom Canning, Danny McGough and Patrick Warren. It was accordion a-go-go thanks to Phil Parlapiano and the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who also threw in string arrangements and repartee. The brass section included Taylor Plenn on saxophone and Mark Hatch on trumpet, and Cameron Stone played cello. Ramon Yslas added congas, shaker and apparently, Jameson’s. Vocal duties were split between Tara Austin, Brad Colerick, Kristin Mooney, Paul Riopelle and David Jenkins, who also added some cowbell. (If Blue Oyster Cult and SNL taught us anything, it’s that life is always better with more cowbell).
David Plenn has channeled a lifetime of experience into 10 songs that are sharp and economical, but still pack an emotional punch. Not everyone is allowed a second act to reignite their passion and follow their muse. David is off to a great start.