Review Summary: A glimpse at a secret room: Boris-produced ambient folk-pop
Ai Aso's first studio album in over a decade ends with an uncomfortably good track. I mean this in a very literal sense. The Faintest Hint
’s sparse, tangentially experimental take on minimalistic folk-pop is as delicate and occasionally beautiful as any music constructed from the space between individual pluckings as much as the notes in question, yet there's a ongoing sense that these songs are not so much open-heartedly shared between Aso and her listeners as they are discreetly observed from her performance. Her vocal style and instrumental delivery are intimate to the point of vulnerability, laying the album out like a secret scene witnessed through a crack in a bedroom door. This is the sense that the closer “0805” captures so adeptly, showcasing the absolute bare minimum of notes required for the song to follow its own chord progression, a beautifully reticent platform for by far the strongest vocal melodies on the album. It unexpectedly ends up as one of the most moving and generally evocative tracks of the year so far, recalling Ichiko Aoba at her most vulnerable.
Unlike Aoba, Aso comes across in a very deliberate, ungraceful way, keen to foreground the brittle components within her own style rather than weave them into anything approaching Aoba’s fairytale mystique. This is a considerable change since her last studio release, 2007’s Camomile Pool. That record was also markedly fragile, but in a much warmer way that invited its audience to share in its delicacy; on The Faintest Hint
, Aso's minimalism borders on the more uncomfortable connotations of nudity, as though she's bared the essence of her craft in a form that feels inappropriate for casual consumption and almost embarrassing to overscrutinise in its simplicity. Perhaps not the basis for an enjoyable listen per se, but certainly enough to keep things compelling - at their best, at any rate.
It's a shame, then, that the album’s sparingness eventually gets the better of itself. While it is starts off with enigmatic intimacy, the majority of this record’s back half has less in common with Ichiko Aoba's enchantment than it does with the opaque tedium you'd associate with the likes of Reiko Kudo. Supported by a skeleton so purposefully meagre, the fragility of Aso’s atmosphere fails to sustain itself, eventually congealing into a clammy misgiving that feels far more superficial than is fair to its performance. This is not immediately apparent; things start out strongly, with two convincingly haunting meditations (“Itsumo”, “Gone”) and an ambient vocalise accompanied by Boris (“Scene”; Boris’ drummer Atsuo co-produced the record with Stephen O’Malley). However, things get lost somewhere around the stiflingly dull “The bright room” and settle into a groove of diminishing returns trapped in the traipse of indistinguishably uninteresting refrains; by the time “Sight” steps in to raise the tone with another bitesize Boris accompaniment, it’s too late.
The main cause of this is the paucity of variation in Aso's approach. Her ascetic focus is striking, but the tools and tones with which she explores it are confined throughout the album to an identically inflected set of selectively tuneful vocal melodies and unassumingly plucked chords-as-an-annex-to-reverb. Frustratingly enough, the one major departure from these techniques is also a solid indication that Aso is capable of altering her approach without fracturing her tone: “I’ll do it my way”’s tail end is punctuated by off-kilter flickers of distortion, staccato blips that challenge the listener to look away from the rest of the track's unrelenting sparseness, only to draw them further in. These interruptions compound the track's central reverie rather than disrupting it, as though Aso is smoothly pressing a tent peg into the ground with one hand while knocking a mallet against it with the other. It's a dreamlike blend of textures that brings to mind the contrasts of rhythm and dissonance explored by Tujiko Noriko circa Blurred in My Mirror
, but Aso on the whole does not display anything close to a similar willingness to reinvent herself as she goes along.
It's perhaps a little harsh to frame Ai Aso in the company of artists as adventurous as Noriko and Aoba when she makes no attempt to present herself as such, but the boldness of The Faintest Hint
’s minimalism seems to demand some kind of reciprocation from the album’s other qualities. For all the impressiveness of Aso's unyielding focus on the bare fundaments of her sound, any listener reluctant to squint at the minutiae as intently as she does will likely find themselves confronted by a perplexing amount of empty space. It’s all very well to be struck by uncomfortable intrigue once you realise you’re witnessing something vulnerable to the point of indecency, but, after a certain point, anyone still standing in front of that bedroom door would likely begin to question what they were doing there in the first place.