Talk West, ‘Please the Parting Guest’

Posted by on January 8, 2015

Wounded Knife, 8/20/2014

In the United States, the word “West” summons up two visions that seem opposed at first but, on a closer look, reveal the same spirit underneath. In one, the West is a distinct region with unique cultural outlooks, conventions, and dilemmas. In the other, the West is a site of adventure and experiment and diversity, a place where new forms of living and thinking have flourished long after the debunking of the original American frontier myth. The American West embraces both of these visions, and so does Dylan Golden Aycock’s work under his Talk West moniker.

Aycock’s recordings weave ambient, experimental, and classical influences into the fabric of traditional American musical styles. Flecks of country and blues appear, but they’re mutated into enveloping soundscapes that go far beyond those genres’ tropes. It’s a fruitful fusion, and it’s kept Aycock busy. In 2014 he released three albums, all of them excellent and radically different. Black Coral Sprig is an immersive and meditative masterpiece, grand and fluid and luxurious from start to finish. Its sibling All Worries At Once makes a turn into more tense and mercurial territory, earning Aycock’s description of it as “an ode to anxiety.”

Please the Parting Guest lies somewhere between those two poles. Unlike Black Coral Sprig, the sequencing makes the album more like a collage or a montage than a seamless work. The songs are often fragmentary, in the style of evocative sketches or fleeting daydreams. Though they often start from a simple guitar or synth phrase and grow with repetition from there, the simplicity comes off as cozy rather than austere. They appear and disappear suddenly, but they linger long after they’re gone.

And where so many artists structure their albums by foregrounding fluctuations in volume and intensity — “let’s have a loud song, and then another loud song, then quiet, then loud again” — here the organizing element is something along the lines of sonic temperature. Some songs bubble and gleam like river water (“Tandem in Amsterdam,” “Wherever You Are Is Home,” “Salt Plain Princess”), some swelter (“Cherokee Yard,” “Longing”), and others waft coolly along (“One Step at a Time Now”, “Fog,” “While You Slept”). These variations work like trail markers, attuning listeners to new natural features and shifts in the weather.

Together, these pieces form a travel diary. The album is the accumulation of experiences and impressions that flit by like the birds featured in the artwork. As we migrate from first song to the last, hop across state borders and even make a brief detour to the Netherlands, each entry contributes to the gentle rise and fall of whimsy, melancholy, peace, and awe. At the center is “Grasping in the Dark,” a two-and-a-half minute slide from twinkling levity to nocturnal isolation. It’s an epic in miniature, growing weightier with each repetition and each new keening guitar track.

That heaviness never overwhelms everything else, though. Like with Calvin and Hobbes, two other great modern meanderers, being pensive doesn’t prevent Aycock from also being playful. Here, feelings blend into one another, asserting themselves quietly as they pass. They may be heartfelt, but they are hardly dramatic.

This is a profoundly unpretentious album, and it’s memorable because it surveys so much emotional territory with so little fuss. It may not share the glory or danger of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River, but that’s why it’s great. Instead of trying to conquer the world, it explores the humbler frontiers of inner Western experience. And as it does, Aycock helps us refashion our old surveying tools for new journeys. Please the Parting Guest equips us for an exploration into places less imposing than the Grand Canyon and yet vaster than we’ve begun to imagine.