Jen Borst and Navid Eliot are two extremely talented folk artists performing under the moniker Planes on Paper. We’ve covered them here before because their music is some of the best folk we’ve heard in recent years. When we learned that they have their first LP coming out this summer, we were eager to get a listen. The album does not disappoint, finding itself a place on our album of the year candidate list before the first play through finished. These two make a folk powerhouse duo that continues to impress with their thoughtful lyrics, moving melodies, and seemingly natural harmonies. There are a few tracks on the album we’ve heard on previous releases, but several new ones that are sure to garner plenty of critical attention.
The opening song “Two Rivers” starts the listener off on familiar territory; the guitar work is just as stellar as any of their previous recordings. The two voices seem to sing as one, creating near-perfect vocals over the endearing guitar work. The lyrics tease familiar folk topics, putting a smile on your face before moving into some of the more unsettling lyrics on the other tracks on the album.
“All that’s flesh is grass” reminds me of a hymn or other spiritual song, evoking mystical imagery. The soft spoken vocal from Eliot allows the deep lyrics to slice right through. “It seems to me this whole scheme is better for the predator.” Without apology, the band acknowledges these lyrics speak to a political (and ultimately historical) moment that we’re living through. This is decidedly not a time for the common person. As a result, the discordant elements and unsettling (at times) pacing of the song are supposed to make us relate to that feeling of being lost… “wondering who we’re dying for.” I want to make a statement of agreement here, but I’m so brokenhearted by the truthful resonance, I’m not exactly sure how to say it. I agree.
For a bit of a shift in tone (but not theme), “Brutus” may be my favorite song on the album. Taking imagery from the classics, Brutus tells the story of power… and betrayal. It’s a wonderfully melodic song, one of the finest pure compositions on the album. The strings bring a cinematic depth that makes the song stand out. It’s a track that defines the chamber folk style that makes Planes on Paper such a superb act.
“Hermit Song” goes back to the simpler duo style that initially drew me to the Planes on Paper style. The line, “I can hear the darkness calling” feels like one of those idyllic folk lines, generating images of astronomic visions. More than another song about love or lust, this one focuses the listener on big questions about existence and being. It’s a philosopher’s folk song and it feels so, so good.
The two tracks “Zero Winter” and “Zero Summer” we’ve heard before and they continue to impress. Something about the minor chords resonates deeply in an ancient place. Rather than the predictable optimism of so much modern folk music (handclaps and whatnot), there’s an evident heartbreak to the questions and answers provided in the Planes on Paper writing. When the strings define “Zero Summer” and the tempo increases, you can’t help but feel a palpable sense of something better coming along. If this is connected to the political message on other tracks, it is a good omen. The lyrics deal with the difficulties of personal struggle, perhaps depression and anxiety, as it interacts with these bigger questions of who we are and why we matter.
We’ve written about “Television” before, so I’ll spare expanding here. It’s still a wonderful folk song with fingerpicking and sweet harmonies. I can’t help but connect it to John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream.” The conflicted emotions of watching the news, even in our Internet driven culture, comes through well on the song. The soothing fingerpicking really helps make the message go down easy when you realize the influence of “noise” in our lives. It makes me want to go out into the woods and reject all things modern.
The final track “The Ruins” was one of my favorite songs in a previous version; this one is just as good. The orchestral arrangement is legitimately soulful and enriching. It makes me do that thing where I take a big deep breath that seems like so much more than air. It breathes in life and renewal. The lyrics use this fantastic literary tool of connecting nostalgia of “way back when” to the title of “The Ruins.” That is to say that ruins are always a reminder of a previous time in history, most often a time that we like to think was better. I’m in no position to explain why Borst and Eliot wrote the lyrics that they did, but the vestiges of our culture do remind us that there have been better times. Further, those images remind us that it can be good (variously defined) yet again. The line “city raised (or razed?) around temples burned to the ground” could garner a paragraph of analysis itself. The social commentary in this track is so much more than a listener can grasp in a few listens. It demands dedication and throughtful engagement, but like literature itself, the more you explore it the more you will learn.
This is not a folk album for the gee-golly gee-whiz crowd. This is not a hipster-PBR-flannel shirt kind of folk music just because it’s trendy. This is deep and transcendent folk music for people who really want to reflect on our political, cultural, and historical moment. It’s a bit of a thinking-person’s music. While it could certainly serve as background music to a lovely gathering, I think it’s the kind of album best served with serious contemplation and a drink… which may be adjusted upon time of day. I can say this; I can’t wait to hear these talented musicians perform live. I’ll get away from the distractions of my modern life and take in the soulful vibrations of strings and vocal chords to connect myself to a deep and abiding tradition of music that seeps deeper into our souls than this present vapidity.