Guess Who?

A pure pop album by any other name is just as sweet

Guess Who?
The Guess Who, Plein D'Amour

So I'm sitting here, minding my own business, when my buddy Jason pops into the group chat and says "Holy cow. Someone took a Lickerish Quartet track and added AI Andy Sturmer," which probably sounds like gibberish to most of you, but is 100 percent exactly the type of thing that makes sense when you've got a years-long text thread with big-time Jellyfish fans. Anyway, because I was already listening to something else, I didn't play the track, instead just quipping back that I wanted someone to use AI to give me a whole new album from Jellyfish.

"If you want a Jellyfish-sounding record," said Jason, "I have one for you and you’re going to be very confused."

He was right on both counts.

The album in question is titled Plein D'Amour, which apparently translates to something like "My heart is filled with love" from French. It was released last year, and it comes to us from the current lineup of... the Guess Who, which will be humorously surprising to you if you're any kind of classic rock fan, and probably much funnier to you if you have any kind of awareness of the Guess Who's long, bizarre, sometimes sad, often unintentionally hilarious saga. Long story short: They started out as Chad Allan and the Expressions before their label decided to pull a stunt by brown-bagging one of their singles and crediting it to the Guess Who?, a name that's stuck through more than 50 years, countless lineup changes, a a handful of hits, and multiple lawsuits — most of which pertain to the fact that for the bulk of the band's existence, it's been officially broken up.

If you check that Wikipedia page I linked to in the previous paragraph, you'll see it authoritatively states that the Guess Who were only active from 1965-1975 — a rather passive-aggressive way of trying to ignore the numerous tours and albums that have happened since. Because every word I write about the Guess Who is one I never intended to write in my life, I'm not going to get too deep into the details, partly because you already know the rough outline without me telling you: Band breaks up, a couple of the guys decide to carry on anyway, hard feelings and state fair gigs ensue. In the case of the Guess Who, things have gotten to the point where the group has reached "ghost band" status (i.e. no original members present) at a not-insignificant percentage of its shows.

It's generally fairly rare that these situations turn out to be what any reasonable person would deem creatively vibrant. The whole point, even if it's unspoken, is to get out and flog the hits, and the folks doing the flogging are frequently not the folks who wrote the material; it's a situation that can be just as dispiriting for the musicians as it is for the fans. (The hardcore ones, anyway — the ones who pay $5 or $10 to hear a few songs they know by heart in the shadow of a Ferris wheel probably aren't anywhere near as bothered.) If and when a post-fame, reconstituted version of a group deigns to release a new album, it's often at least partly made up of re-recorded versions of the old hits. It can all feel awfully craven, which is why we reflexively mock the groups that do it.

The reality, though, is that these situations are often a lot more nuanced than we want to take the time to consider. For example, if the current lineup has been together longer than the "classic" lineup, is it still fair to say they're an imitation? That they're objectively worse? That they have no claim of ownership to the material? Based on the way we tend to disregard the lesser-heard, latter-day versions of groups like the Guess Who, I think it'd be fair to say that the actual quality of the original product is almost beside the point. I mean, "American Woman" and "These Eyes" were hits, but if you're going to try and argue that they're deathless classics, only one of us will end the conversation with a straight face. They're songs that a lot of people know, and the guys who wrote and recorded them should be proud of that, but... c'mon.

This is all stuff I was thinking about as I listened to Plein D'Amour, mostly because the shocking quality of the material shamed me for going into the record wondering whether Jason only sent it to fuck with me. Part of me feels like it's fair to scoff at the notion that whatever and whoever currently constitutes the Guess Who would be capable — or at all interested — in releasing an album built from lush, layered, pure pop parts, but another part of me has been wagging a stern finger since I started my first listen, saying this should be a reminder that great music can come from any old place at any old time. Even a "ghost band" currently fighting off the latest lawsuit from former members.

And no lie, this record really is pretty great. It could almost be a Jellyfish album in some spots, and if you're a fan of the band, you know that's extremely high praise. The songs are smartly composed and beautifully performed, with numerous musical turns of phrase that left me chuckling in admiration. The current lineup boasts five singers, which they take full advantage of throughout Plein D'Amour — this thing is stacked high with gorgeous harmonies. If you ever in your life bought anything from Not Lame, you really owe it to yourself to listen to this. There's a part of me that's afraid of overselling it, but fuck it — it's been a long time since I bit into a musical candy bar this sweet. I am, in a word, impressed.

Could the band have released it under a different name? Sure, but we wouldn't be discussing it here. Do these songs make any sense in a set list that also includes "American Woman" and "These Eyes"? Maybe not, but that isn't our problem. Just check it out and see what you think — and start imagining the killer, extremely different-sounding albums we could someday get out of the "ghost band" versions of groups like Kiss, Foreigner, and Chicago.