Aaron Roche’s “Plainspeak”

“Plainspeak is, however, a unique experience, and it deserves to be lauded as such.” -GO

Guest Writer

out of 10

Aaron Roche
November 30, 2010
Sounds Are Active

Aaron Roche’s newly-released and ironically-titled album, Plainspeak, with its motley sound and fusion of styles, is about as far from “plain” as you can get. Sometimes classical, other times rife with Radiohead-ish dissonance, Roche’s album dances between the spiritually meditative and the auditorially annoying. Sometimes the release has moments of total breakthrough, as with “Improvisation for Two Guitars” and “A Weaker Vision,” where beauty and genius are cohesively blended. At other times, though, it’s more of a salad-bowl mixture. As if someone fell on a mixer and started thrashing around. The first song, “Saraburi Provence,” is an example of this — a tad too much concept and not enough accessibility. Which, yes, I know is the point, and, yes, is a way to translate human complexity into sound; but it’s also, yes, something that I’ve heard before, and something physically exhausting when it goes on for more than six minutes.

In short, this is a very complicated album. And as such, it makes for a complicated review. On the one hand, I’m compelled to praise the originality here. Roche is clearly an adept musician whose talent spans nations as well as instruments. On the other hand, this is a very difficult album to “enjoy.” It hurts your brain sometimes. But such, I suppose, is the case with any good creative risk. A little bit of weirdness and difficulty will always come as a result. And this album is no exception, with a few songs erring on the side of strangeness, and others paying off in spades.

If there’s one thing I can say for Roche on the whole, it’s that he has a wonderful sense of musical landscape. These songs unroll like thick, colorful blankets, and they wrap you in their richly-drawn spaces. “Fiction,” for example opens with the placidness of a lone guitar, plucked softly and one-by-one, joined by the whispered lyrics, “I hide the eyes inside the Everglades / Inside the Everglades / The fallen dogwood trees explain the world to me/ Explain the world to me.” The repetition creates a sense of blooming, which matches the music as it slowly unfolds. Strings are soon added, then drums, then an electric guitar and a belted refrain — “Write it down / Write it down” — all compounded and eventually swirled into a total overwhelming reverb. And all this in only 2:28. As a result, you feel as though a depth has opened up around you, the song gradually transforming into a space of its own.

You can map this transformation with almost ever song on the album. For instance, in the following track, “Verses for the Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve” (*breath*), a similar unfurling occurs. Beginning as a musical dirge of classical winds and accompanying cello, the song eventually shifts. The rueful, hymnlike vocals get washed-out by Roche’s piano and mixer, which in turn devolve into total dissonance. Unfortunately, the vocal fluxes and unblended instruments in this song make it far less appealing than “Fiction.” It’s not the most attractive of sounds. Which is not to say the lyrics aren’t lovely. They are. They’re just not all that lovely to listen to.

“Improvisation for Two Guitars” is the next track, and it is one of the best instrumentals on the album. Complex and beautiful and contained in a whole movement, this is the perfect song to be at the heart of Roche’s album. The rest of Plainspeak seems devoted to his cross-cultural influences, especially with the instrumental stylings of “Czar, Fiddle, Resolve” and “Muak Lek.” Even with all this diversity, though, the album never feels disconnected. Each song leads perfectly into the next. It lets you close your eyes and drift from one song to the next, wandering the various soundscapes, a kind of meditative journey. And the vocals on Plainspeak add to this sensation. A cross between Greg Laswell and Iron & Wine, they operate sort of beneath the music, low and quasi subliminal. Their softness gets enveloped — as you, the listener, are meant to — but in a way that generally fits.

With all the good things that there is to say about Plainspeak, the main thing I think the album lacks is something like “fun.” Instead, it’s almost always trying to do too much (which is probably why the beauty/simplicity of “Two Guitars” stands out). With the exception of maybe two songs, you’re never going to sink into a rhythm, nor will you have a catchy line stuck in your head. There won’t be any body-swaying or whistling-along. There’s simply too much going on. And as such, there’s just too much for one listener to carry away.

Plainspeak is, however, a unique experience, and it deserves to be lauded as such. As much a painter as he is a musician, Roche has crafted an album that explores every bit of its canvas, filling its space with many colorful tones, so that while you’re listening, you feel compelled to be silent, meditative, as if there were no room for words of your own. No matter how plain the speech.