If we’re always listening, we’re always changing. Last year was a time of transformation for Circuit des Yeux‘s Haley Fohr, as she toured to support the self-released Overdue. After a solo set at the Hopscotch Music Festival in September left her questioning both the crowd’s intentions and her own, Fohr wrote, “I feel that I must arm myself with sound, with musicians, and take back what I feel has been stolen from me with an army of friends and supporters.” So after years of mostly going alone, In Plain Speech is Fohr’s invitation to change.
Like her friend and fellow Chicagoan Ryley Walker‘s recent Primrose Green, the songwriter and multi-instrumenalist surrounds herself with some of the city’s most creative — and, more importantly, most sympathetic — musicians on In Plain Speech: Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas), Whitney Johnson (Verma), Rob Frye (Bitchin Bajas), Adam Luksetich (Little Scream) and Kathleen Baird (Spires That In The Sunset Rise). It’s one thing to collaborate cold; it’s another to find colleagues who understand a vision and even help develop it.
What made records like Overdue and Portrait so compelling was raw intensity found in solitude, and with In Plain Speech, Fohr doesn’t so much dial back as refocus that intensity in arrangements that glide even as they exude delirious urgency. A palm-muted bass and rolling drums provide a disorienting helicopter rhythm to “Ride Blind” as Fohr richly intones, “Are you blind like me?” It becomes a swirling circus as Whitney Johnson’s viola swoops around Adam Luksetich’s fuzz bass and off-kilter snare hits, not to mention Fohr’s bewildering howl, which recalls ’60s free-jazz vocalist Patty Waters. The dreamlike “Dream Of TV” is Circuit des Yeux in instrumental mode, centered on the way Kathleen Baird’s looped flute curves the air with dizzying effects, taking advantage of a band that knows how to build to noisy euphoria.
But even as Fohr opens her studio to collaboration, In Plain Speech is at its most striking when she pares down to a trio. Built around samples from a Laotian ethnographic record, “Do The Dishes” is an arpeggiated meditation on the feminism of the everyday, a theme amplified in the powerful (and NSFW) music video. “There is something deep inside of you / Something that’s worth reaching into,” Fohr repeats as a mantra, repeats as truth, repeats as a challenge as she continues, “It makes me tremble / It makes me shake / It’s a risk I’m willing to take.” The cyclical samples reach a fever pitch with Johnson’s viola and come to a sudden stop, transitioning to Cooper Crain’s synth-droned denouement in a moment to reflect. “Fantasize The Scene” is Fohr at her most subdued, as it takes on the dark acoustic songs of her past and — with viola, bass and drums — gives it a moving body that sinks into a descending chord progression. “A Story Of The World” flutters with flute and bass clarinet, droning on a monochord like a Roy Harper acoustic epic of yesteryear.
Since 2008, Circuit des Yeux has been a singular entity, drawing from inner turmoil. But as Fohr recently told Impose, “I can’t afford solitude at this point in my life.” Looking outward at the world around her and the relationships that give her meaning, In Plain Speech is Fohr at her most composed and confident. It wanders while brimming with hope.