Album Review: Arbouretum – Song of the Pearl (Thrill Jockey)


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MP3: Arbouretum – False Spring

Don’t miss Arbouretum’s CD release party at the Talking Head this Tues Mar 3!

I don’t think I cast any illusions about the fact that I consider myself a writer, particularly of fiction (though if you weighed my recent output, you’d be hard-pressed to divine that). It comes as no surprise then, that I am particularly fond of music, and albums, that seem to spawn from a writer’s mind. While musical cohesion obviously takes precedence above any other aspect of an album’s content, lyrical richness that approaches that of prose, elevates any musician to another plane of artistry.

Dave Heumann, the creative impulse behind Arbouretum, exemplifies this combination of traits. In my writings on Arbouretum, I’ve cast Heumann as a gifted storyteller and I’m comfortable in venturing to say he is a writer at heart (I think there’s some support for this standpoint in our interview with him last year). But I’d say that Heumann has finally resolved his musical vision, coalescing it with his lyrical ability into a document that may represent a new apex for the project.

Arbouretum’s latest album hits with a level of grounded immediacy that is greater than most any moment in their previous records.  Dave Heumann and co also seem to have refined their songcraft (something probably facilitated by the most concrete line-up to date while recording).  With each track closely averaging a 5 minute length, Song of the Pearl is clearly Arbouretum at their most lean, and often their most effective with an unparalleled sense of focus on every song.  We also find the band veering further into weighty rock territory while jettisoning much of the solo digressions of tracks like the epic “Time Doesn’t Lie.”  As fantastic and engrossing as these elements can be, they are not the optimal language for a writer-musican to spin their yarns; this musical escapism can draw a listener out of a song as much as an errant chapter can disrupt the flow of a novel.  Reigning this in is probably Arbouretum’s most noticeable change on the album, and it works wonders.

Opener “False Spring” features a steadily swirling brew of guitars that work themselves into frothy, explosive solo passages that display the group’s newfound sense of brevity.  They hit just long enough to make their statement and set their mood, then they are promptly abandoned for different tones.  The sparse intro guitar line of “Another Hiding Place” dispelled any of my doubts that Arbouretum operates most effectively in massive instrumental meltdowns.  The lingering melody that opens that track is one of the most rushing and affecting passages I’ve heard in a long while, filling me with the deepest sense of solitude and wanderlust and perfectly ensconcing Heumann’s forlorn, picturesque vocals before descending into thrillingly foreboding rock as the gentle guitar melodies struggle against huge chords of doom.  ”Down by the fall line” is positively haunting, with spectral vocals, burned-out drones and wails of guitar and a determinedly plodding pace.  

“Song of the pearl” is perhaps the most gorgeous track on the album, with lush and plaintive strings where you can almost feel the vibration of the bows, Heumann’s timeless voice soaring and resonating in your very marrow.  The unrelenting churn of “Thin Dominion,” the melodic guitar line battling to rise above the gloomy murk formed from unrelenting bass growl and depressively crackling, distorted guitar line, all echoing the sentiments found in Heumann’s tortured voice.  On “Infinite Corridors” and “The Midnight Cry,” Arbouretum deliver intense blasts of rock which seem to crescendo a sense of sturm und drang into a stunning cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a long time.”  And a more apropos pairing I couldn’t imagine.  Heumann firmly asserts he is a storyteller of the strongest lineage; it drips and oozes from his very core, and you can hear it as he takes Dylan’s legendarily lucid lyricism and absorbs it into himself.  And so the listener is finally swallowed whole by an album that is immense in its weight and impact.

Heumann’s creative spirit clearly dwells in a tortured domain of longing and heartbreak, a gloriously melancholic world where ancient magics have worn thin, leaving only brief sparks of light to shine amidst encroaching darkness.  With this album, Arbouretum have carved out a spectacularly visceral experience,  pained and beautiful, a clear and focused progression from their previous work that finally feels like it captures the elegance and essence of the facets of Heumann as both musician and writer.

Label: Thrill Jockey

Release Date: Mar 10 2009

Track List:

  1. False Spring
  2. Another Hiding Place
  3. Down by the Fall Line
  4. Song of the Pearl
  5. Thin Dominion
  6. Infinite Corridors
  7. The Midnight Cry
  8. Tomorrow is a Long Time

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