Jack Rose was one of the finest — maybe the finest — acoustic guitar players ever. So, when he died all too soon, in December 2009, his influence on others was obvious based on the outpouring of support that followed his passing. Ben Chasny, always an outspoken fan of Rose, was among those quick to honor him on an epic tribute album, Honest Strings. And, now, you can hear Rose’s influence on Chasny’s Asleep on the Floodplain.
Over his long career, Chasny has made a number of great acoustic records. But his recent output, including 2009’s Luminous Night, has been more about swirling distortion and swelling atmosphere than previous efforts. That sound is solid in its own right, but the wall of noise can keep you at a distance, whereas 2005’s more acoustic-based School of the Flower invited you into its space. Asleep on the Floodplain achieves a similarly spacious feel, ringing out with notes instead of folding over itself, and the result is Chasny’s best record in a half-decade.
For as often as we’ve heard Chasny snap notes off the guitar, he still sounds fresh and inventive here. From the sped-up-then-slowed-down roll of opener “Above a Desert I’ve Never Seen” to the spacious cascade of notes on “Hold But Let Go,” his playing is precise, intricate, and surprisingly emotive. The gaps he leaves in these songs, compared with his thicker compositions, gives the notes space to resonate more deeply, so even when you get to the more tangled playing of “River of My Youth,” you’re wandering through the song to find its feeling, rather than getting lost in it.
There is still plenty of atmosphere to be found on this record. Squalls of electric guitar still swell and fill up smaller moments, and the 12-minute-plus “S/word and Leviathan” is built on a maddening repetition that tenses and builds to a break that never comes. But even in its most disjointed, electric moments, everything here flows through the acoustic guitar. The playing is so compelling on its own, in fact, that when Chasny’s voice comes in, his deep warble can be a bit distracting. Like Robbie Basho before him, his singing can upset the dream world of the music, but in the end it’s small trade-off. Asleep on the Floodplain is an affecting album that feels more like a conversation between player and listener than a delivered lecture the way Luminous Night sometimes felt. It’s the kind of communal feel Jack Rose always nailed in his music, which makes this record a fitting tribute (intentional or not) and an impressive feat for Chasny.