Plainspeak

by Aaron Roche & Tim Hinck (2010, Sounds Are Active)

I’m often amazed and humbled at the number of musicians who e-mail and ask me to check out and write about their music. One thing this means is that I have a pretty steady influx of new and interesting music. Unfortunately, it also means that those e-mails sometimes get lost in the deluge. Which brings me to Aaron Roche.

Roche originally e-mailed me back in early February concerning Plainspeak, his collaboration with Tim Hinck (as well as members of Lambchop and Silver Jews). We’re now approaching the end of March and I’m finally giving Plainspeak a spin—you can listen to the entire album on Aaron Roche’s Bandcamp page—and I’m kicking myself for having waited so long. You see, this is sublimely gorgeous stuff. The Sounds Are Active blurb claims that the duo “have taken folk and modern classical music to another dimension entirely” and I’m inclined to believe it.

You’ll hear facets of folk music in the duo’s hushed acoustic arrangements and plaintive vocals (think Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans), while the modern classical angle emerges in the minimal, obtuse orchestral arrangements and challenging song structures. But Plainspeak is more than some academic attempt at genre mashup. In their finest moments, Roche and Hinck (and their collaborators) craft deeply moving songs that draw on the earthiness and humanity inherent to folk music while using more experimental, left-field elements to add extra color and depth to the compositions.

“Saraburi Provence” does a fine job of letting you know what you’re getting into: drones, scattered percussion, and field recordings slowly emerge only to find themselves wrapped up within a simple, effective acoustic guitar melody. There’s tension within the song—Will the acoustic guitar drag it down? Will the avant-garde flourishes eventually run amok?—and the duo do an excellent job of never fully resolving it. Rather, they let the song expand until it’s something exotic and otherworldly in which the listener can lose themselves. Similarly, “Improvisation for Two Guitars” takes folksy finger-picking and imbues it with a structureless, almost jazz-like feel within which flows a restless, rustic energy.

But impressive though the album’s instrumentals may be, Plainspeak‘s finest moments are those when Roche’s hushed voice makes an appearance. But even then, there’s a slight tension: Roche’s voice lends another layer of humanity even as his cryptic lyrics—e.g., “Oh to see the marine ecstatic like a killer whale/Fell the tree of the punk poetic every hundred years” (“A Weaker Vision”)—leave you scratching your head as you attempt to unravel his metaphors. Thankfully, said metaphors never get in the way of the song.

For example, the aforementioned “A Weaker Vision”—my favorite song on the album—weds a gorgeous array of fluttering woodwinds and melancholy strings to graceful acoustic guitar strums, a woozy clarinet, and Roche’s voice. The resulting music evokes shades of Sufjan, David Sylvian, and Arve Henriksen, and when Roche ends the song with “We’re all the same around here”, it comes across as nothing less than a gentle affirmation of community and shared humanity.

All told, Plainspeak is an album that’s as delightful as it is challenging, and one that is highly recommended for fans of any of the aforementioned musicians. I just wish it hadn’t taken me more than a month to finally give it a listen.