For its lo-fi debut, AroarA rejected modern sounds
In the Pines, the debut release from Montreal-based husband-and-wife project AroarA, has been filed under folk by most reviewers, something that kind of makes sense. Not only is the uniformly excellent release full of pine-shack-simple guitars and sepia-toned vocals, in a roundabout way it was directly inspired by Harry Smith’s classic 1952 collection of tunes entitled Anthology of American Folk Music.
But as much as In the Pines fits into the folk section of your local independent record store, that’s not necessarily where moonlighting Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman and his wife, Ariel Engle, feel comfortable.
“We don’t listen to folk—I’m not a folk aficionado in any way,” the amiable musician says by phone from his former home base of Toronto. “What we wanted for this record was for it to not sound modern in any sense. So our drum machines are drum machines from the early ’70s. All the sounds that we picked for the record, we wanted them to sound like they were of a certain time, so there’s no synthesizers on the record. Or I should say no synthesizer sounds. There are no modern sounds—they all sound dated, even though I made them with my laptop and keyboard. A lot of the live stuff, we did with a shitty microphone.”
In the Pines might sound intentionally lo-fi, but the record is decidedly high-concept. AroarA started out as a “faux-Arabic disco project”, building songs around programmed beats, with Whiteman plucking away on a “fretless goatskin African banjo”. Around that time, he was reading In the Pines, a collection of rule-breaking poems by American renegade Alice Notley. The now-Paris-based poet wrote the collection while undergoing treatment for hepatitis C, pulling lines for her work from songs on the aforementioned Anthology of American Folk Music. Being a massive fan of both collections, Whiteman saw the chance to forge another link between them, the singer eventually hunkering down with Engle in a rural Ontario home owned and offered up for their use by Leslie Feist.
The result is one of the best records of the year. Like the poems they’re inspired by, the songs on In the Pines have numbers rather than titles. Despite that folk label, they don’t all sound of a time when coal was America’s favourite heating source, men wore suspenders, and gingham dresses were bought in bulk. You can almost taste the Woodstock mud on “#4”, a retro-rocker that sounds cut from the same ragged cloth as Janis Joplin and early Jefferson Airplane, while “#8” drags hip-hop through the Appalachians. Mostly, In the Pines’ songs are embellished with gorgeous touches like the abandoned-farmhouse guitar and deserted-saloon piano on “#14” or the wheezing of what may or may not be a droning harmonium on the soaring “#17”.
That AroarA has pulled off an ambitious endeavour is made quite clear by a tale that Whiteman is proud to relate.
“We did a show last year in the mecca of experimental poetry—a place in New York called the Poetry Project, in St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery,” he says. “When we played, Alice’s two sons were there. They are New Yorkers and are both poets. After the show, one of the sons came up and said, ‘When my mom was sick and taking the drugs to cure hepatitis C, I made cassette tapes of old folk music for her, from the ’30s and ’40s.’
“He sent it over to her,” Whiteman continues. “She was on some pretty intense drugs and, while listening to the tapes, was hearing and mishearing some of the lyrics and writing them down. She turned them into In the Pines, which, years later, I read, turn back into music, and then play for him.
“It was so wild and surreal to feel that come full circle.”