In Brief: Due to the topic of suicide, this won’t be an easy listen for most folks, but it is ultimately a beautiful and touching meditation on a mother’s passing.
Lost in the Trees sounds like the kind of band I’d love, just from their name. I’m easily drawn to the kind of music that would make a good soundtrack for a long, meandering hike through a dense forest to some spectacular mountain vista. And while their music would certainly fit that purpose well, it isn’t necessarily the same type of folk-rock-going-for-baroque that usually has me going gaga over bands like Fleet Foxes, Mumford & Sons, The Last Bison, etc. There’s something a little more classical, and a lot more “meandering”, to this North Carolina-based group’s approach. At times the odd, morphing rhythms and lush instrumentation of their songs (think strings, horns, harps, bells, and the like) reminds me of a quieter Anathallo – and those guys are one of my long-lost favorites. Some of their more hushed, straightforward material reminds me of a delicate, tragic-yet-heartwarming song that Sleeping at Last could have written. But there’s a language to Lost in the Trees that seems to be all their own, that scatters the puzzle pieces among several songs rather than summing up a situation in a single one, that keeps me searching throughout an entire album of theirs for the cause of the tragedy behind its story, and the effects it led to.
On the group’s second full-length album, A Church that Fits Our Needs, I came in knowing the gut-wrenching climax of the story. It’s unavoidable, right there in the cover image that stares into your soul. The album is dedicated to the late mother of lead singer Ari Picker, a woman he clearly has deep admiration for, who committed suicide in 2008. The death of a parent is already hard enough on a child, but I can’t even begin to imagine the anguish and the difficult questions that would arise from a parent’s suicide. It’s quite a feat, then, that while A Church that Fits Our Needs does go to some dark places, that the mood balances out all of the melancholy questions Ari has to sift through with a liberal dose of tenderness and curiosity. His chosen tone here is one of remembrance, of trying to shed light on the gifts this woman had to share that many of the people around her may have never noticed or appreciated. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s not a bleak and hopeless one, either. In some ways, the love and understanding he expresses here is far more compelling than a fair amount of romantic love songs in the same genre. The subject matter isn’t something that everyone will respond to favorably, but I also don’t think you need to go through the same sort of loss in order to relate. If anything, it’s a reminder to appreciate our parents (at least, for those of us who have some semblance of a positive relationship with either of them) while they are still alive.
Musically, this group clearly knows their way around a complicated arrangement, and they also know how to strip it back for the sake of clarity. The ever-changing time signatures of several songs will probably be the first thing that stands out to most listeners. For folks like me who appreciate breaking out of the usual pop mold and doing something adventurous, this is a huge plus, but even my mathematical mind has a hard time keeping track during several songs. it’s a challenge that I sort of enjoy, because I can find the patterns, but I can’t necessarily count them out and put a definite numeric value on a lot of them, like I would on an album by Sufjan Stevens or Iona. (The score sheets for each instrument must be mind-boggling!) This can make it a bit anti-climactic when the group settles into a slow-peaceful, “normal” rhythm, particularly for several songs near the end of the album, but even then, there are still swelling choral elements and other subtle surprises. Percussion plays an important role in their “denser” songs, often being the only thing that keeps the listener sane in the midst of a sprawling, writhing arrangement, and yet the melodic hooks are strong enough once you get used to them, that the jagged puzzle starts to make sense in its own weird way. I can’t say that Lost in the Trees will be a definite win for fans of any of the artists mentioned above – they’re unique even among the niche of indie folk artists with similar instrumentation that I’m always going on about. Their music is both heartfelt and intellectual, without ever coming across as intentionally difficult, or as pretentious as you might expect from a group which cites influences ranging from Vivaldi to Radiohead to Neutral Milk Hotel. They can be a fascinating listen for those who have the patience to dig deeper and ask themselves what makes a song or its songwriter tick.
1. Moment One
Two “moments” introduce the front and back halves of this album, and while neither is a standalone piece that I’d know how to feel about in a vacuum, they both serve their function of briefly setting a mood. This one, represented by an hourglass symbol on the album’s back cover, consists of tense piano chords ringing out into the stillness.
2. Neither Here Nor There
The song that pulls us into Lost in the Trees’ sound is one of their finest, showcasing both their penchant for constantly changing rhythms, and their ability to come up with indelible melodies despite that. The piano and bass co-conspire to make sure you remember the main theme that they keep coming back to, even if you’ll forget the exact timing of the strange pauses and the drums going rat-a-tat-tat in between. The song is like a gentle knock on the door of the afterlife, pondering a lot of things – the transitory nature of life, the way death arrives without warning like a sudden ice storm, leaving others to pick up the pieces, and how someone whose life was so precious could choose to end it when “nothing ever harmed her”. Some of these lyrics immediately put a lump in my throat; other snippets of ideas like the words “I’m buried underwater” have meanings that don’t surface until later in the album. But this lovely piece meanders along, ebbing and flowing like a slightly chilly breeze on an otherwise beautiful autumn day, returning to its familiar refrain after wandering through various verses and interludes, never wearing out its welcome over its five-and-a-half-minute length.
Also incredibly addictive, despite having a rhythm that seems to continually cut it short, is Leah Gibson‘s haunting “Da da da” vocal that becomes this song’s main hook. Part of Ari’s goal with this album was to create a sort of space between worlds where his mother could continue to exist. I know that sounds all kinds of metaphysical, but even a skeptic’s got to admit that his poetic words are doing a wonderful job of keeping her memory alive. Here, the lyrics compare his beloved mother to a bird, a garden, a quiet little piece of nature where her love is reflected as he tries to make sense of a future that she won’t be physically present for. “As scarlet fever glows, so do the golden hands of God”, he signs tenderly, and that word “golden” will become important throughout the album (having already been referenced in the phrase “golden armor” in the previous track). He still yearns for her guidance as he faces the looming arrival of parenthood: “Am I going to have twins?/I can feel them kicking/Don’t leave the water too soon.” As a string arrangement hums and swoops around the tasty stew of fragile vocals, acoustic guitar and piano, the offbeat nature of the song begins to feel more intrinsic, more natural. this is often the beauty of Lost in the Trees’ complex arrangements – once you start to “get” them, they’re downright heavenly.
4. Golden Eyelids
It almost seems unfair to call this song “normal” just because its soft, acoustic rhythm is a consistent, measurable one. But it floats peacefully by, almost like a lullaby, accentuated by dreamy bells, strings, and wispy backing vocals. Here Ari imagines his mother’s spirit being taken on a journey, seeing the world from a bird’s eye view in a way that mere mortals aren’t allowed to. He doesn’t quite know what she’s experiencing, but he imagines that she must be at peace, now that the aching needs of corporeal existence no longer apply: “Your cancer’s fed/Your soul shielded/Your voice sings red.” As he learns to care for his newborns, he still longs for them to know their grandmother’s embrace: “Let your arms be our beds/My eyes see red”. Odd that the word “red” appears several times here despite not making an appearance in the previous track – such is the stream-of-consciousness nature of this album, with recurring lyrical themes floating in and out of several different songs.
5. Icy River
This is one of the mellowest, most “classical” songs on the album, relying almost entirely on its string arrangement, with a subtle acoustic guitar framework to guide it along. Suitably for one of the most tear-jerking moments on the album, the longing, aching, searching melody of the string section swells in volume for maximum emotional effect, but the entire arrangement backs off considerably to make sure Ari’s soft words carry as much weight as possible. The style of this one is where they remind me of Sleeping at Last the most, particularly during the Yearbook era. But the lyrics are uniquely devastating and touching here, bringing us to the specific moment when Ari said a eulogy for his mother and spread her ashes at the bank of a river, presumably somewhere deep in the woods. His words are almost like a defense of her life and the worth of her soul despite what people may have had to say about the harsh reality of her taking her own life: “Don’t you ever say that she was weak-hearted/She led me to the woods where our church was started/Like a ribbon of silver/I poured her body in the river.” Here is where the title of the album comes into play – it’s not “religious” music in the usual sense, and it certainly isn’t about the man-made buildings we call churches. It’s about the construction of a sacred place just for a mother and child, safe from the stones that the less compassionate followers of traditional religion might have to throw at her. He doesn’t care how much his devotion affects others’ opinions of his soul, or his capability as an artist, for that matter: “I don’t care what happens to my art/Left in a pile behind the shed to rot/I put you in my painting every single time.”
6. Tall Ceilings
Side A wraps up with an enigmatic song that has a fast-flowing, percussion-heavy and yet strangely light arrangement, almost dipping into light jazz territory by way of chamber pop. Ari’s thoughts here are almost a continuation of the last two songs, imagining a dream-like world in which he and his mother have a house underwater, where he can float up the stairs and watch a waterfall come cascading through the window… or something like that. This one’s rather vague, but interesting, especially when it changes up the rhythm from 6/8 to 5/8 near the end, keeping the brisk pace but turning a melodic corner as piano and cello gingerly flirt with one another, becoming more troubled as the rest of the string section begins to sound out a high-pitched warning, while the song gradually comes to a close.
7. Moment Two
Fittingly, the back side of the album opens with the sound of footsteps walking through a forest, with birds cawing in the distance. The symbol for this track is a paintbrush, which at this point, starts to make perfect sense.
8. This Dead Bird Is Beautiful
This song is long, slow, and strange… it may be the one point on the album where a non-standard time signature hurts the flow of a song, rather than making it intriguing. it’s probably because most of it is propelled by a simple, straightforward-sounding guitar strum, leading the ear to expect a typical 4/4 rhythm, but it seems to hiccup every so often, really hurting the flow of some of Ari’s most vulnerable lyrics. Here, he describes the harrowing experience of finding his mother dead in the forest, and yet his words are more concerned with her peace than his fear. There’s something in her passing that speaks to him, that moves him once again to speak out in support of her (these events apparently happened before those of “Icy River”, but the story isn’t being told chronologically; still I get the feeling one song is intended to each the other). His words are the kind I’m sure any mother would love to hear while she was still alive: “Don’t you say she was weak/I’ll carry her/Because she breathed, I breathed.” The song takes an interesting turn in its second half, when the rhythm of it solidifies and some very operatic female vocals take over, leaving us with a haunting coda that wrings all the melancholy it can out of the group’s classical sensibilities. I had to learn to appreciate this one slowly, since at first it felt like an odd hiccup right in the center of the album, but now I’m starting to understand why it needs to be the slow, ponderous, weird creation that it is.
The most frantic, up-tempo song on the album is, perhaps not so surprisingly, one of my favorites. I guess I just like non-standard rhythms a lot more when there’s strong percussion driving it, making it easier to make sense of the chaos. With all of the extra little measures and bits of melody thrown in to keep this one jumping around between 9/8, 5/8, 7/8, and some other oddball meters, cellos sawing away to keep pace with the noisy drums, this is another track that sticks in the brain even if it’s impossible for “steering wheel drummers” like me to keep up. The garden alluded to in “Red” is explored here, and it’s a beautiful place, brimming with color and activity, but also a surreal, haunting one: “‘Cause out your mouth come weeds/And my hallowing will turn the forest grey/It’s so peaceful here/It’s where I think I’ll stay.” The whole “soundtrack chase scene” quality to this one makes it downright riveting, and the interplay between the strings and heavy percussion makes it appealing to fans of diverse musical genres. This one would be a stellar live show closer.
10. Villain (I’ll Stick Around)
This track opens with a clip of a woman speaking, presumably Ari’s mother: “Is there anything you need in your life that you don’t have? Can you think of anything?” It’s faint, but a man can be heard responding that he can’t, and this little snippet is presumably meant to give us some insight into her personality, because it sounds like a rhetorical question, where most folks in the developed world, at least, would have to say “no” after really sitting down and thinking about it. The song that it introduces has an almost finale-like quality to it – I wouldn’t have minded it being shifted back a few spots to actually close the album, because its sense of stillness and the wonder Ari feels at being haunted by her ghost feels like it sums up the strange peace he’s arrived at incredibly well. (It also reiterates the notion that “she’s neither here nor there”, which would make a nice bookend.) I’m reminded of the similar subject matter coming from a vastly different genre in Tool‘s song “10,000 Days” when he sings, “Did God put you in the wheelchair?/A buzzard here who’s eaten every part/Of such a grey green/Which one is the villain?/I think you got it backward.” Tough questions, but understandable coming from someone who’s just lost a family member whom he dearly loves.
11. An Artist’s Song
The “operatic” element comes out once again, in this otherwise laid-back folk song, in which Ari’s mother is depicted as a misunderstood artist, perhaps the kind who no one fully appreciated until after she was gone. Voices chime in with this loud, otherworldly “Woooooo-ooo-ooo!”, in perfect time with the strings to accentuate every other line of lyrics, and once again, it’s a strong hook to keep us coming back to an otherwise understated song. I can even detect a hint of playfulness in what sounds like a toy piano – it might be a bit off-key, even, but it only adds to the odd mixture of solemnity and nostalgia that drives a lot of the album. Here, he’s looking to his mother’s songs and paintings to give him some sort of a foundation, a purpose when he struggles to believe in one: “A fearful song/Played by trumpets for my heart/I have a fear of darkness/So sing your hymn of faith/’Cause I have none/Your song is my fortress.” Like “This Dead Bird Is Beautiful”, the song goes into a bridge that changes up the rhythm and makes the arrangement a bit more elaborate, though I think this one works better in the department of “seemingly simple songs that have a surprise waiting just around the corner”.
The final song strips almost everything back except for Ari and his finger-picked guitar – there’s some very light piano, occasional strings, and some vocal ambiance in the background, but this could just as easily be a spotlight moment in their live show where he’s all by himself, in an uncomfortable spotlight on the stage. His fragile words merge together a lot of the lyrical themes from earlier in the album, envisioning his mother as a sort of muse or spirit who puts words into his mouth and guides him through his struggle to sort through the memories and move on with his life as an artist, a husband, a father. I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed that the album becomes so consistently mellow after “Garden” – I guess I could have used one last “convoluted” song before things settled down for the final act, but that’s a minor nitpick. The more I dig into the lyrics, the more I start to appreciate songs like this one that didn’t really stand out to me at first. His final words here give me the strongest reminder of Sleeping at Last, as I think back to their decade-old song “Trees (Hallway of Leaves)” and its question asked of a boy lost in the forest, “Trust me, I know where I’m going… Will you follow me still?” Ari’s uneasy mixture of faith and doubt comes from a perspective much like that boy’s, as he wonders aloud: “Am I hopeless?/I trust you, but where are we walking to?”
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Moment One/Neither Here Nor There $2
Golden Eyelids $1.25
Icy River $1
Tall Ceilings $1.25
Moment Two/This Dead Bird Is Beautiful $.75
Villain (I’ll Stick Around) $.75
An Artist’s Song $1.25
Ari Picker: Lead vocals, guitars, harp, percussion, piano
Mark Daumen: Piano, harp, bells, bass, tuba
Emma Nadeau: Backing vocals, horn, trumpet, piano, harp, bells
Leah Gibson: Cello, backing vocals
Andrew Anagnost: Cello
Jenavieve Varga: Violin
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.