In Brief: “Less is more” seems to have been Lost in the Trees’ mantra this time around. The huge baroque arrangements and labyrinthine time signatures may be mostly gone, but even in this stripped-down setting, Ari Picker’s musings on death and what lies beyond the doorway just up that staircase are still every bit as intriguing.
Sometimes an artist reaches a point where he realizes that there are ways for him to grow that don’t necessarily involve raising the stakes and trying to outdo the sheer scope of his past record. Serial escalation is ultimately a losing scenario for most musicians, anyway – you can only get so ambitious and make your music so convoluted before the nuts and bolts of the process start to overtake your art’s very reason for existing in the first place. This seems to be the kind of thing that Ari Picker, frontman for Lost in the Trees, must have realized after completion of their intricate, heartfelt, and otherworldly album A Church that Fits Our Needs. That was an album that admirably eulogized his late mother, and it needed to be the sort of thing that put passion before reason, obsessive detail before immediate accessibility, devotion before demographics.
A quick glance at the group’s third album, Past Life, however, reveals a somewhat drastic change of pace for the band. Two of its six members are no longer even around, reflecting the decision to try more of a stripped-down sound – there just isn’t the need to have extra string players and harpists and whatnot on hand when your intent is to make more skeletal indie rock. But this isn’t a complete turn away from the baroque tendencies and the sensitive singer-songwriter musings that made Church such a compelling album. Most of this album is dominated by rhythm, but not in a big, loud, attention-seeking way – some of these tracks can be as intimate with a constant, unwavering beat and a bit of guitar or piano on top of it as Church‘s best tracks could be with a full ensemble carefully treading a complex, zig-zagging path. I’d say that Past Life is about equally split between its up-tempo experiments that flirt with a more accessible alt-rock sound, its gentler musings that wouldn’t be a stretch for your average indie pop aficionado’s playlist (even if a few of those can be a bit too tame to really connect with me), and a few of the more ornate, classically-minded arrangements that you might have heard from the band in their – um, past life, I guess – this time focused more around the piano and more of a “chamber pop” mindset than the string-drenched drama of their prior work. With the best tracks topping out at breathtaking vistas that excite me every bit as much as “Neither Here Nor There” or “Garden” did, just in different ways, and with the most middling tracks at least managing not to noticeably drag down the pace of the album, Past Life turns out to be a much easier album to dive into than Church was, even if getting to the “bottom” of it may not seem quite as rewarding.
Actually, I’m not sure if I can really get to the “bottom” of this one, seeing as I don’t even have much of an entry point to whatever story is being told in this album’s lyrics. On Church, the answer that it was about Ari’s mother was right there in the cover art, and probably one of the first things you were likely to hear about the album from someone recommending it to you. That’s the sort of hook that a good “concept album” needs to have to draw you into it, and Past Life… well, it may not be intended as a concept album to begin with. Some of the same lyrical interconnectedness is still there, bridging ideas between different songs and hinting at a greater purpose, but the ideas seem more scattered, as if it isn’t so straightforward that death and reincarnation are the main themes in play here. I hold onto those hoping to find a springboard into something deeper, but even if I never find it, it doesn’t detract from the listening experience. It may well be that Past Life is about that in-between phase, having just closed a chapter on an old life and looking for a new identity to rent for a few years, trying on different hats and seeing what fits best. With a name like Lost in the Trees, I’d be disappointed if there wasn’t some form of searching and wandering involved.
The opening track actually won’t be too much of a shock to the system if you’ve heard Lost in the Trees before. it’s a piano based tune with a lopsided time signature, which exchanges the expected strings for a tuba and brings in a slight bit of digital percussion, but for the most part it’s every bit as fragile and beautiful as what we’ve come to expect from the band. Piano is the lead instrument here, its rippling chords bringing a sense of peace and order to an otherwise unusual rhythm and melody. Ari Picker’s voice is as angelic as ever, singing what may as well be a coda to the events of Church, but with the perspective flipped, as he describes being burned and his ashes scattered to the wind, still aching for the love of whoever it is that is saying their final goodbye. An unusual choice for an opening track, to be sure, but it’s one of their most extraordinary songs.
2. Past Life
The title track, quite shockingly, turns out to be the band’s most anthemic, accessible track yet. For a group that’s prided itself on complex indie folk arrangement, this sudden turn towards a straightforward pop/rock arrangement, with a trance-like drum loop and a growling electric guitar riff that you won’t get out of your head easily, can seem almost like a betrayal, and it probably would be if it wasn’t such an immediately engrossing song. The delicate vocal echoes that worked so well in “Excos” resurface at the beginning of this one, and none of the “catchy” elements of the song work in any way against the group’s knack for carefully texturing their songs and bringing them to thrilling climaxes. The abstract lyrics hint at being haunted by memories of misdeeds committed in a past life, resulting in a song that is equal parts anguish and curious wonder, as if he’s working up the courage to face fears that have followed him across that supernatural void between one life and the next.
3. Lady in White
This song is where the group’s switch from orchestral folk-pop to rhythmic indie rock begins to let the seams show, because it’s downright odd at first to hear the drums and bass bumping around, trying to stick to common time, while the ebb and flow of Ari’s vocals frequently deviates from it, making the rhythm section seem to trip over itself and then find its place again. Over time, I’ve gotten used to this and I can see the compositional genius behind it, but for the first few listens, it was just odd. Notes from an electric piano ring out brightly over this otherwise skeletal arrangement, like shafts of light peeking into a house that’s long since been boarded up. Ari’s fragmented verses address a haunting figure who seems to come to him at night: “Always, you’re always in my mirror at night/Always, your eyes always are repeating white light/Always, you always meet me in the next life.” I enjoy how the song seems to come to a place of peace at the end, letting the bumbling rhythm fall away as the piano and vocals ring out into the still night air.
4. Daunting Friend
As abruptly as this one starts, with its mid-tempo guitar picking and its rhythm section seemingly on auto-pilot, once again hanging on to a steady 4/4 and hoping Ari will come back around to that well-defined rhythm, it makes the song feel quite out of place, as if the album were on shuffle and something much more spacious could be expected after “Lady in White”. Even a brief, pensive intro section would have worked better than just diving right into this one. I hear the backing vocals chiming in on the chorus, giving it a bit of a ghostly, choral effect, and I’m reminded of the bold, climactic moments in past songs like “Garden”, that needed their off-kilter rhythms to emphasize the drama, and I feel like the laid-back bass and percussion just don’t fit here. If my assumption that this album is about either being a ghost or being haunted by one holds any water, then this song seems like it would be about two friends and/or lovers haunting a town together: “We’ll float around the town/Chasing all that beauty we’re after/A mirror repeating, saying you’re alright/Sing with all the color of night/Our love’s always changing, like angels speaking.”
It might be due to leftover fatigue from the rhythm section not being as imaginative as I want it to during the last song, or from how the quality of songs in general seems to have backed off since the first two tracks, but for whatever reason, I find myself rather bored with this one. It’s not bad, as laid-back indie pop songs with light bass grooves and plinking piano melodies go. There’s something intriguing about its lyrical hints at how art, and religion, and the rituals we go through when trying to comfort ourselves in the face of great loss, can cover up the hurtful memories and frayed relationships left behind. That’s my best guess, anyway. Ari keeps asking, “Are you sitting down?”, and it seems like such a rhetorical question, because this isn’t the kind of song you would have been standing up for, either because you want to give a standing ovation for an amazing performance, or because it had kept you captivated with some sort of suspense.
This song represents a more effective merging of the old and new incarnations of the band, as strings gently swell behind a discordant, repeating piano melody and a buzzing bass line that marches in lock-step with a more syncopated rhythm. There’s something about the personal, heartfelt bits of instrumentation trying to break into the mechanical, spooky drudgery of it that I find interesting. Lyrics are quite sparse here, to the point where I’m not even going to bother with interpretation, and it might be due to the lack of an obvious verse or chorus section that the song starts to seem a bit repetitive by the time its three and a half minutes are up. Not that I expect all songs to conform to conventional structures – I guess I would have just liked to hear more of a definitive shift in the melody from time to time, to make the song feel like it was doing more than just riffing on the same musical idea all the way through. Still, it doesn’t sound “conventional” by any means, or easily traceable to any of the artists that I might have previously names as potential influences on the band.
7. Glass Harp
Also repetitive, but easily forgivable for doing so due to its breathtakingly lovely arrangement, is this song, a definite nod to the baroque pop of the group’s past, but with fewer instruments as a basis. The heavy bass and percussion take a break here, in favor of gently flowing triplets from the piano as the song’s rhythmic anchor, accompanied by a few horns and what I’m assuming is some sort of a harp, or perhaps a keyboard’s approximation of one. If the Sufjan Stevens song “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” and the Bon Iver song “Wash.” could have a lovechild together, this would probably be that song. It’s probably because the Stevens song has to do with wasps that this one makes me picture a field of flowers, all abuzz with bees in the springtime. But whatever it makes you picture, it’s a nice contrast to the darker themes and more rigid rhythms hear on most of the album. The song seems to promise one’s arrival at a place of total acceptance and absolution, as Ari softly repeats, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”
This one falls into the same “vaguely pretty but kind of forgettable” rut that “Rites” does. Nothing inherently bad about it – I like the bright electric piano tones and the shiny, hopeful melody, which seems to deliberately contrast with some rather downtrodden lyrics about hoping for the sun to shine down, but being trapped in a damp, icy place instead, as if all of the warm weather had departed and left a permanent winter in its place. The song sort of ambles along with no real surprises, and once again i find myself wishing the drummer, or really anyone in the band, would break out of the predictable pattern somehow.
9. Night Walking
This is a good example of a song that follows a rhythmic pattern, but still packs plenty of excitement into it. For one thing, it’s a more intricate rhythm, filled with taps on the hi-hat and other little clickety-clack noises filling in the gap. The syncopation makes it much denser than “Wake”, the previous song that did this sort of thing well, and as a result this one becomes a late album highlight. That rhythm could repeat throughout the song with nothing else going on and that wouldn’t be enough on its own to make it a winner, of course, but there’s a finger-picked electric guitar melody that adds a lot of character to the song, as well as some rather operatic backing vocals by Emma Nadeau that help to shape the song’s stunning climax. This is almost a love song, an invitation to take someone’s hand and follow them into the uncertainty that awaits in this mysterious place the album refers to as “up the stairs”. I love the line from the chorus that says, “Your voice is light, we come from the dark.” It’s as if these people are realizing that what they are destined to be is not written in stone and irrevocably sad or evil just because they both came from a dark place in the past.
The final song is… well, a bit anticlimactic. I sort of felt that way about “Vines” on the last record, too, though I could grasp that one as a quiet prayer of sorts. Here, having finally arrived at the top of the proverbial staircase, I feel like there ought to be more of a stunning resolution to this strange story than just a lone man gently plucking away at an electric guitar, with little aside from light drums and more of those “ghostly” background vocals as his accompaniment. The whole thing is eerily similar to Radiohead‘s “House of Cards”, and while I’m generally affable towards bands who want to take a little bit of Radiohead influence and put their own spin on it, that isn’t exactly one of the better Radiohead songs to use as a starting point. It makes the final destination seem like a cold and lonely one, with perhaps less to it than some of the dark and minimal passages we’ve already traveled to, and while a few stray lyrics seem to hint at this being a birth or some sort of a new start, most of the song is consumed in this idea of the world falling apart. I suppose it could signify an unhealthy attachment to that old world being left behind, but it’s an awfully unresolved note to leave the album on, especially considering how little fanfare there is to the way this song comes to a sudden stop, as if it were meant to go in between other songs that never got recorded.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Past Life $2
Lady in White $1.25
Daunting Friend $.75
Glass Harp $1.75
Night Walking $1.50
Ari Picker: Lead vocals, guitars, keyboards, programming
Mark Daumen: Bass, tuba, piano
Emma Nadeau: Piano, Rhodes, backing vocals
Kyle Keegan: Drums, percussion
Joah Tunnell: Guitars, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: