And the horse they rode in on
Arborea erect fortifications of light and darkness
Arborea’s Buck and Shanti Curran asked me if they could listen to the test vinyl pressings of their new album, Fortress of the Sun, at my house. They’d heard the record player for themselves. And they didn’t actually have one, in-house. Well, yeah.
I couldn’t leave well enough alone, though, and tried to rig something up through my folks’ old tube-filled receiver, which turned out to have a shot left channel… Anyway, receiver number three – my trusty Pioneer from college – ended up doing the trick, hooked up to a Technic table.
Good thing. There was something special about watching the care with which they listened. Was that a bent note? Or just a truck tearing by on Route 202? It was the truck. The listening experience stood right up to Ray Lamontagne’s Gossip in the Grain, and he issued that 10-song album as a double disc on 180-gram vinyl, just so the grooves could have some room to breathe.
The record-listening party was a bit of a tease, though, wasn’t it? It’s not like they left me a test copy. Was it different to hear it ripple through my 140+ year-old house, vibrating the still-settling frame for the ultimate analog experience? It sure was. But digital tracks and a good set of headphones works, too.
The listening experience is just so vital to enjoyment of their music. Don’t half ass it. Every note is gently placed, as though each settled on a velvet cushion. That may sound like it could be too precious, but the Currans are fully invested. You can’t imagine disbelief.
Which is probably why, like their metal mirror image Ocean, they are particularly critically acclaimed and have caught highly favorable mentions in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. Their tour stops read like a posh travel magazine’s table of contents. There’s a reason the new album is being released by ESP-Disk’, home to albums by the likes of Sun Ra and Billie Holliday.
However, as of late the mainstream culture has shifted considerably acoustic and may ram right into Arborea if they don’t watch out.
“After the Flood only Love Remains” is stop-in-your-tracks beautiful, and what passes for a single for them. If you can slow yourself down to their pace, see the world in half time for a bit (which is almost impossible when you try to keep up with the pace of things like the Internet), it becomes incredibly catchy, a singalong. Reimagined as a straight up bluegrass song with fiddle and banjo, this would be what they’d call in Maine a “crowd please-ah.” It’s not quite as catchy as “Alligator,” on their most-recent House of Sticks, but it’s also less of an outlier.
Michael Krapovicky provides some electric bass to ground Shanti’s ethereal vocals and Buck’s layers of acoustic guitar and languid electric, which gives it some forward momentum and hints at Neil Young and Crazy Horse. On peyote.
It’s an equine album, indeed. “Pale Horse Phantasm” comes out of the gate like a warm spring wind, Shanti’s barest vibrato in the chorus allowing for the possibility of vulnerability and putting the song right on the fulcrum of narrative and lament. Late song, Buck provides a subtle backing vocal of just a few well placed words. The dynamics in Arborea’s songs are slight adjustments, degrees to the left and right of center, but no less dramatic in their way than emo’s roller coasters.
In “Rider,” Buck takes on lead vocals, with a tasteful acoustic blues riff introducing a gravelly baritone with a lilt, “Hey now rider, do you know why you run?” It calls to mind the iconic “Know You Rider,” with their own version of the cowboy experience, evoking the wide open expanse of the west, the too-bright sun and the wind that bites at the tips of the ears. There is the smell of the horse underneath, its bulk and power, its beating heart.
And then there is “When I Was on Horseback,” an Old English folk song that might have been pulled from the pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Team that with the haunting whispers of “Ghost,” a Shanti solo piece with a banjo that rises from the fog, orderly at first and then losing form and dissipating. Joined by a harmonium, her delivery – with lyrics echoing that kind of faery place that isn’t all flower petals and rainbows at all – might remind you of PJ Harvey’s “little fish, swimming in the water.”
Gearheads might take some pleasure, too, in the fact they help create this timeless aesthetic with the help of an EBow, which bows guitar strings with an energy field (introduced in 1978; first customer was Jerry Garcia; probably last seen locally at the State Theatre as utilized by Built to Spill’s Jim Roth). On “Daughters of Maine,” Buck pairs it with Greg Boardman’s bowed bass and it knifes through the crispness of the fingerstyle acoustic guitar in the kind of solo I’m not sure is ever completely repeatable.
“Cast out your hands” Shanti implores repeatedly into the finish. Her last breath of sibilance at the end is a flash of light.
Cast out your cares and let this album wash over you. Don’t plan on having anything else to do.