(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Recording review - Arbouretum, Coming Out of the Fog (2013)

Echoes of 1972 super-groups that never existed

Consider the prototypical hipster band. They're a clever duo, mining old-school sounds. They blend in a little electro-vibe synth here and there and then proudly apply a low-fi matte finish. Arbouretum is not that band. Those other cats would shrivel up against the onslaught of warm tube distortion on Coming Out of the Fog. It's not "retro"; it's a freaking secret radio station broadcasting from an alternate 1972. One where Neil Young joined Bad Company and they jammed with Richard Thompson and the Velvet Underground. Arbouretum doesn't just sound like a band from that era; they capture the exact production quality of those classic recordings. With the dynamic compression of old microphones and analog tape, the instruments all blend together into a warm, live-room mix. As nice as the MP3s sounded, I wish I had a copy on 180 gram vinyl to really soak in the period sound.

In 2011, their album The Gathering (review) instantly became one of my top recordings for the year. Coming Out of the Fog doesn't meander quite as widely as that record, but it's a strong followup. They still understand the magic of how to use a down-tempo, roaring distortion to build intensity. On "Renouncer", they set up a simple pattern of Super-Fuzzed guitar and bass that roils and swirls around the solid drum work. Dave Heumann's vocal is husky with a delicate edge, somewhere between Paul Rodgers and Warren Zevon. The steady pace fits the oblique lyrics that reference the lessons of St. Simeon Stylites and other religious figures. Even the lead is unhurried. The band takes a similar approach on "All At Once, The Turning Weather", dragging the tempo and letting the rumble of guitar and bass fill the track. This time drummer Brian Carey gets a little room to show off some sweet cymbal work, using his ride to periodically frost the edges.

While they're effective at the drag-beat crunch, Arbouretum has no problem opening up the throttle. The album peaks with "World Split Open", whose mid-tempo drive is centered around a resonant acid-rock guitar riff. The repetition becomes a saturated raga meditation worthy of the Velvet Underground, with hints of "All Tomorrow's Parties". The comparison is apt as Corey Allender's bass meshes with Carey's drums to evoke John Cale and Mo Tucker. Glimpses of feedback are scattered throughout the cushioning cocoon of fuzz. Heumann's heady lyrics have a grand feel:
To cast aside a world of lies
Where distress and trouble grows
To dispel the legends that surround
An unfolding compass rose
The solo is untethered, as if Heumann is manipulating a chaotic fountain of noise. The buffeting distortion is cathartic, but the stripped down, tribal beginning to the following instrumental track, "Easter Island", comes as relief. While it develops into its own noisy celebration, it's a calming drop-off to take us to the title track.

"Coming Out of the Fog" shows another side of the band. It's very Beatlesque, with a mix of Abbey Road's "Sun King" and the verse from Let It Be's "Don't Let Me Down". Heumann's restrained, Americana vocal sounds weary and philosophical, backed with Mathew Pierce's nuanced piano and Dave Hadley's singing steel guitar. It's a sweet decompression from the dark and exciting drama on the rest of the album. Coming Out of the Fog may be less epic than their last album, but Arbouretum have crafted a well-paced record that holds together and showcases the band's rich sound. I'd like to think that there's a 1972 out there somewhere, sending out these kind of echoes across dimensions.

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