Ai Aso

Chamomile Pool

(Pedal; 2007)

By Chet Betz | 1 October 2007

If Boris and Michio Kurihara’s Rainbow (2007) was the storm’s immediate wake, its beatitude still charged with the tearing of light passing through drenched air, Boris-affiliated and Michio-married Ai Aso’s Chamomile Pool is the even more serene denouement, where the rain waters have come together to rest, where the rainbow lands on some hidden horizon point and drowns in the clouds’ remains with only us listeners as witnesses. Which is probably a too florid way of saying that Rainbow and Chamomile Pool make for a damn fine double feature.

Beautiful binaries are built right into this album’s oil-and-water confluence, into the spare elements that yin-yang around each other within a production aesthetic that’s as lucid and glutinous as the titular image. Opener “Date” hums to a start pointedly, a synth flute blaring out a three-note melody that goes up and down and pans over from the left channel while Ai’s vocals refrain airily just over the surface; then Ai makes a “boop” noise and the last note echoes over on the right channel, at which point hubby Michio steps in with drawn guitar sighs easing languidly from left to right and back—as if the picking by Ai on the right draws Michio over and then sends his plaintiveness back where it came from. The total sonic effect is inertial: the added elements simply ensure that “Date” continues its spiral sink into blue depths. The next time Ai says “boop,” the key line becomes viscous chords into which You Ishihara (of White Heaven/the Stars) releases a free patter of cymbal splashes, vestigial drops falling from tree leaves into the pool, an incidental requiem for the sunken rainbow and a mere remembrance of the storm. The very definition of freaking gorgeous, it’s an incipit that recalls the subdued yet potent elegiac effect of the first vignette in Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990).

Most of Chamomile Pool‘s front half slowly spins on a similar magnetic bipolarity. In some ways the construct of “Tee Te Te” is virtually identical, just built around a different melody and without the synth or cymbal, a centered guitar line appearing sporadically throughout; but its shifts are more subtle, the overall song reveling in a harmonious sort of stagnancy. “Life” pairs a low acoustic figure on the right with a piano on the left, brushed drums and Ai floating in between, its breakdown a stunning little lounge jam where Ishihara again provides perfect cymbal glances. “Colchicum” starts with a canned bossa nova beat before Michio’s picks and shimmers appear on either side, Ai’s insouciant vocals and bass bringing up the middle. And “Not Late Yet” pares the dynamic down to its core, just Ai Aso singing another pristine melody with a guitar round in one hand and glockenspiel chimes coming from the other. The exception is “A Lo N,” which features a full band fully playing their way through a nice pop song that would’ve felt right at home on early ’90s Touch and Go. It’s cute because it’s the second track and it sounds like it’s supposed to be the album’s single.

Things start stirring in the album’s back end. “Ka Mi Tsu” (see track listing for full title ‘cause that’d be the first and last time I’m typing it all out) initially sounds like more of the same, but then Ishihara’s drums and Chiaki Teranishi’s Procol Harum-y organ join the mix. Still, it all stays very restrained, even with Michio’s slow-motion shredding in the last minute. “Hundred Years” continues the album’s newfound sense of spreading sound and measured layering, Soichiro Nakamura basically keeping time down below with the bass and drums while Ai and Michio together create incandescent cascades on high, which feels like hearing their matrimony and is enough to make a single person envious. The song holds back, though, fading out as Ai’s vocals affect a dramatic rise into angelic territory. A realization creeps up on you: Chamomile Pool‘s about to bloom. While a solid ditty in and of itself, “A Lo N” retrospectively becomes the only too forward note in a graceful progression that peaks with “The Future.”

There’s an increasing but always mild restlessness to the way the band plays through the first four minutes of “The Future,” like a swarm of bubbles rushing to a placid surface. When the geyser breaks, the band settles into a sustained gush of glory notes, Ai and Teranishi pounding away at their keys while Nakamura froths away at his drum kit and Michio’s guitar arcs into the sky, blasting a crack through the atmosphere and letting in a radiant vocal pulse from outer space. It’s thrilling but also never anything but sublimely beautiful. The tension involved doesn’t feel dark or angst-ridden, seems alien to human concerns, like it really is modeled after some force of nature that’s power becomes mystic to our perception. When the fountain subsides, Chamomile Pool returns to its serenity, “Land” a remake of Rainbow‘s “And I Want…” that finds Ai Aso back between two shining repetitions that try and fail and try again to merge, ad infinitum. And it feels like Ai might forever stay content in that static flux, a bath of chamomile keeping all nightmares at bay.