Water to Wash Water Away
Josh Aran is sitting cross-legged, sinking into the living room sofa of the crumbling old Victorian home he's lived in for the past six years. It's just past noon on a recent Sunday, and his hands are cradling a mug of coffee as if it's the only source of heat in the house. His dark beard and black, thickly framed glasses lend a rustic bookishness to the Minneapolis singer-songwriter. He seems sleepy, like he just woke up. Then again, you get the feeling that this might just be his natural state.
Everything about this guy screams (or better yet, whispers), "naptime." Aran speaks with the calm, measured articulation of an English professor. When he listens, he does so intently, yet his expression is totally without presumption. He comes across as passionate, but never excited. Even the title of his latest album, Water to Wash Water Away, suggests a sort of dreamy fluidity.
The album—Aran's third—is the perfect manifestation of his soporific nature. The 13 tracks of atmospheric, folky pop shuffle along lazily, lulling you into a sort of semi-stoned state of contentment. You'll find traces of Coldplay in the vocals, Matthew Sweet in the guitars, and Counting Crows in the arrangements, but the sound is never too derivative. Although Aran's jumpy and psychedelic guitar work makes the first track, "Suspended Under Glass," a little restless, the remainder of the album dissolves into a much more airy and contemplative vibe. These are the kind of songs that demand long red lights on dark empty roads when there's nowhere in particular you need (or want) to go.
Aran recorded most of the instrumentation for Water in the 110-year-old Uptown home he shares with his girlfriend. It's a place of gorgeous stained-glass windows and intricate built-in cabinetry. "I like no pressure, to be able to just be creative and have a chunk of hours with no clocks around or cell phones, so I can just dig into another world," Aran says. "This time I just wanted to make an album being conscious of how people have always made albums. You don't edit the crap out of it. You just play. And if you hit a note that's ever so slightly off pitch, well, maybe that's what gives it character."
Aran is unapologetic about his preference for being a solo artist (he's never been a member of a band, he says). He claims the reason is he doesn't want to "spread himself too thin." But you get the impression that the real reason is he likes to do things in a very prescribed way at a very unprescribed pace, and he blossoms in a creative environment that is, well, uncluttered. However, he did wrangle some notable local musicians to help fill out the tracks on Water, including Erik Appelwick on bass, Sam Keenan on piano and organ, and Zach Miller and Justin Korhonen on drums.
The musicians gel particularly well on songs like the giddy "First of May," which begins with some simple acoustic guitar strumming. When the drums come shuffling in, they are as understated as Aran's breathy vocals, which he pushes into a bashful falsetto throughout the album. The minimalist drone of the organ warbles subtly beneath it all, resulting in a texture that is warm and smooth, but not so polished that you feel manipulated.
For the most part, Aran sticks to the proven pop trifecta of songs about falling in love, losing that love, and finding it again. While his familiar melodies usually avoid the saccharine, the chorus of "Goodnight California" might turn and turn like spun sugar inside your skull. "Veni Vidi Vici," however, is a quick little ditty about global warming. His approach is less confrontational than poetic and pensive: "You smiled into the camera/I breathed/Catch in my lungs/And my red eyes watch the ocean rise." (Aran says a friend commented that he mistakenly thought the song was about the death of Aran's father, who passed away from cancer in 2003.)
The bonus track is a cover—and quite possibly one of the album's best songs. You may recognize it right from the opening minimalist guitar riff, but you will fumble to put a name to the melody until the chorus kicks in. After all, an ethereal, acoustic version of Def Leppard's "Hysteria" might be difficult for even the most die-hard hair-metal aficionado to identify.
"I started out really into the whole cock-rock thing. Metallica, Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses, Poison. And as a guitar player, I was really into Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, which is like girlfriend repellent," Aran says with a laugh. "I remember the first time I heard U2's Achtung Baby, I hated it. Three years later, I loved it. It's hard for me to dismiss different styles of music now, because there will probably come a time in my life when I get it."