Issued from a faction of Portland’s music scene that seems to get much less attention than it should, the mesmerizing new record Confirm Reservation by the slowcore band Plains collects ten tracks of eerie, lightly psychedelic folk ballads. Minimal, serene, and low-key to the brink of fragility, each song builds around Erin Sprinkle’s twinkling, skeletally assembled guitar chords and lurid confessions, which plot a dreamlike space between imagination and reality while hovering around themes of doubt, remorse, and revenge.
You might think of Plains, a five-piece, as the product of three distinct musical acts: the former art-rock band Seekonk, which featured Pat Corrigan and Dave Noyes; the slowcore chamber-folk duo South China consisting of Jeremy and Jerusha Robinson; and Sprinkle, the principal songwriter whose musical direction forms the group’s north star. Yet instead of a positive collision of sonic elements, Plains’ dynamic works best in the other direction, as a steely progression toward slow, quiet, and spacious tones.
Indeed, the best songs on Confirm Reservation claim negative space as a sort of sixth instrument. It crawls through the opening strut of opener “Unlucky Friend,” a haunting blues ballad beset with Corrigan’s distant, spaghetti Western-ish guitar squall. It’s a propulsive force behind the wistfully gorgeous “For I Have Seen Your Kind,” in which Sprinkle sings lines of surrender (“lead me away from noise/lead me into the woods/where we can keep ourselves breathing”) joined by the twin timbre of Jerusha Robinson, creating a dual lady choir as hauntingly good as anyone since vintage Cerberus Shoal. “I Have Seen Your Kind” also marks another successful marriage between plaintive folk and ambient noise, as Corrigan’s receded guitar meanderings form a crackling field behind the melody.
There are moments on Confirm Reservation where a good thumping percussion — even something so minimal as a bleak, once-per-measure kick drum — might intriguingly draw out the group’s doomier qualities, but having been raised on Low records I might just be conditioned to think so. The occasions in which they do bring in percussion, such as the tense crossroads of “Swimmer” and the jammier “King,” aren’t as rewarding as one would hope, and seem to distract from the steadfast slow-crawl toward redemption that otherwise so powerfully informs their songs. Ironically, where they nail percussion best is on “Confirm Reservation,” a cover of Gregory Isaacs’s 1981 reggae track reinterpreted as a gorgeous protest ballad; a light downbeat inverts the hopeful dub rhythm of the original.
On the first listen you might not even notice a track like “Abide,” a dreamy love song that benefits from a fuzzy, lo-fi recording and a shimmery backdrop of what sounds like fireworks. But it shines once you accept the band’s terms of quietude and low-expressivity. An angelic chorus of “oooohs” convey the song’s main sentiment, while Sprinkle never sounds clearer and more resolute than in this track’s verses. On “Trip,” her voice is almost entirely unaided by instrumentation, its low and mournful thrum unfolding layers of depth over the song’s nearly eight-minute length.
Plains aren’t designed to dazzle you, and attempts to engage with their music should be similar to how one befriends an old cat: slowly, cautiously, and with the measured hopes of a comfortable, peaceful snuggle. Sit quietly, and let them come to you.
CONFIRM RESERVATION | Released by Plains | with Vince Nez + Greg Jamie | at the Apohadion Theater, in Portland | Oct 12 | bandcamp.com/tag/apohadion-records