CD Review: Arborea – House of Sticks
From the Maine woods comes this beguiling, hypnotic, rustic album of dark, minimalist, ambient Americana. Arborea’s self-titled debut made a splash last year and drew accolades from NPR and the BBC, and has since sold out (it’s still available on itunes). Their verdant, bracingly earthy follow-up album takes the listener even deeper into the forest. Singer/banjo player Shanti Curran has an ethereal, frequently otherworldly voice that reminds of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, but with considerably more gravitas and soul. As an instrumentalist, she makes every note count: her plaintive, thoughtfully spaced plucking fits well with her voice alongside her husband Buck Curran’s acoustic and electric guitar shading. Iron and Wine is an obvious comparison, although Arborea can be considerably darker, and have a broader sonic palette: this is not a band where you could say that after awhile, all their songs pretty much sound the same. And it’s not freak-folk, although fans of that genre will undoubtedly be taken with their sound as well.
The album’s opening track, River and Rapids blends dreampop and oldtime folk, banjo playing a sparse, circular melody beneath somewhat disembodied vocals. The way the guitar gradually builds and then interpolates within the hypnotic banjo melody of Beirut is gorgeously intricate. On Alligator, insistent banjo functions as a bassline beneath Shanti Curran’s soul-inflected vocals and dreamlike layers of acoustic and slide guitar. With its guy/girl vocals, the long, pensive Dance, Sing, Fight echoes the Cure back when they were a goth band, concluding with a particularly apt Midnight Oil lyrical quote. Then it segues into the haunting Look Down Fair Moon, banjo playing a Middle Eastern-style oud taqsim line, but in the minor scale.
The gentle, Indian-inflected drone of the title track brings back the contemplative vibe of the first part of the album, its meticulously layered arrangement evocative of Brooklyn “porch techno” art-rockers the Quavers. Then the cd wraps up with the minimalist, reflective Onto the Shore, segueing into the final cut, In the Tall Grass, a warm, inviting lullaby with harmonium loops that grow to include the subtlest of slide guitar accents and vocalese after a long intro. It’s chillout music for smart people and it’s a clinic in how to say more with less. Arborea next play the Solidarity Center, 20 Ivers Street in Brewer, Maine on January 8 at 7 PM and then they’re off on European tour (check the link above for dates).
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