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Lost in the Trees – Past Life

on February 18, 2014, 12:00am

On the new album Past Life, North Carolina-based orchestral folkers Lost in the Trees have found complexity via simplicity. Previous output from the band, including All Alone in an Empty House (re-released in 2010) and 2012’s A Church that Fits our Needs, demonstrated bandleader and lead-singer Ari Picker’s exquisite songwriting and melodic sensibility. A classically trained composer, Picker relied on choruses of angelic singing, swooning string passages, and horns “from on high” to drive home the emotional content of his sweet but sad songs. While the songwriting and production were exquisite on these albums, they tended to flirt too often with preciousness, almost too beautiful for their own good.

But, on Past Life, Picker and his band have sloughed off many of the orchestral trappings that had previously defined their sound and they are instead delving into simpler, yet deeper and darker territory. Take album opener “Excos” as a primary example: Sure, the angelic singing remains, but now it’s been pushed to the background, wallpaper rather than the focus. The melody is structured around a simple, repeating piano line, as percussion rattles in the background. Suddenly, there is enough space for Picker’s delicately sung lines to live and breathe. In the reprise, when a chortling baritone saxophone joins the slow-building fray, Picker’s voice rings out above the clamor, almost chanting: “So clear and sharp is/ The color your eyes turn/ Watch all the mountains burn/ The color your eyes turn/ Because nothing is beautiful/ The color your eyes turn.” The result is downright haunting: a dissolving breath equal parts beautiful and sad.

Picker has an uncanny knack for writing beautiful melody and harmony, but on previous recordings, all the terrible beauty could sometimes get lost amid the mix of strings and horns. On lead single “Past Life”, Picker (initially) strips away external trappings and lets a downright ballsy guitar riff lead the way. He replaces the swelling strings with foreboding electronica, giving the composition a sense of dark absence. The song builds to a satisfying crescendo as Picker explores the vagaries of life, death, and the spiraling boundary between.

Album standouts “Rites” and “Glass Harp” further the proposition that less is more. On the former, Picker sets his vocals against a simple, rolling piano line, adding weight to the chilling refrain of “Are you sitting down?/ Are you sitting down?”. A quavering saxophone on “Glass Harp” disrupts the simple beauty of the repeated piano riff, shaking the song loose at its foundation and suggesting that something dark lurks on the other side of the sweetly sung refrain.

By limiting the volume of the diverse elements in each song, Picker manages to elevate the effect. The result is a solid, interesting album that rewards close listening. Instead of relying on string accompaniment to elevate his music, Picker is stripping away excess and plumbing the depths. Past Life is a major stride forward for a very talented group who have until now only teased their potential.

Essential Tracks: “Past Life”, “Rites”