Toronto’s Rock Plaza Central had been putting out weird, dark folk rock since 1997’s Quantum Butterass, but it was with 2006’s Are We Not Horses that novelist Chris Eaton’s songwriting vehicle jumped like an Appaloosa onto the indie establishment’s radar. A flattering review in Pitchfork (and a score of 8.4!) pulled the group out of the TRANZAC and onto the Yep Roc roster—then to MTV, year-end lists, and further acclaim.
Looking back, there remains one hell of a record: a song-cycle about artificial horses struggling with the question of their “horsiness,” about war and strife, and about love (what other subjects are there, really?). Eaton’s voice, though always ragged and strained, floats across several points of view, from the sweet self-satisfaction of “I Am an Excellent Steel Horse” to the redemptive luster of “When We Go, How We Go (Part 1)” to the giddy sexiness of “08/14/03.” And the lush, dynamic arrangements of the group deftly captured all the sweet spots of mid-aughts orchestration, including the moment’s fascination with Eastern European rhythms and flavours.
The sci-fi concept might sound campy, but one of the brilliant things about the record, lyrically, was the complexity of its tone. It’s funny, hearing about horses discovering themselves and waging battles, but also touching and relatable. It’s both at once. “We’ve got a lot to be glad for,” the chorus repeats in unison on the album’s big finale, the fantastical conceit oscillating between virtual reality and here and now.
At bottom, though, Are We Not Horses is made of the simplest good stuff: memorable and poetic images and infectious melodies. It’s hard to forget some of these equine characters and their all-too-human desires—hard to forget some of these tunes. “I want to be a shining example,” Eaton and company groove along on “How Shall I to Heaven Aspire?” for instance. And they were.
Henry Adam Svec is a writer living in London, Ontario. He's on Twitter.