Postcard from Belfast
Tree by Leaf return, and depart, with Amen & Amen
Maybe it’s fitting, considering the supernatural nature of much of their lyrics, that Tree by Leaf’s newest album seems to have dropped from the heavens. With no fair warning, the band that put out two of the best albums of the mid-2000s have this week posted their first in five years, Amen & Amen, to Bandcamp, a full-length that can be had for a measly $5. Unfortunately, it’s also their swan song. [*This was written in April 2011. It turns out Garrett and Siiri weren’t close to done. I should have known better.]
Consider that bad news, but also the deal of the week. Everything that has captivated many of us — Garrett Soucy’s literary and haunting lyrics, Siiri Soucy’s powerful harmonies and lead vocals, their simmering way of recording songs — is still in place, now a decade in, and the new 10-track album sounds like a band that have never missed a beat, even if they’ve been largely absent from the public eye lately, and have now disbanded.
It makes their opening track, “Once I’ve Seen Paris,” seem ironic, actually. The band seem to enjoy playing up their Downeast, out-of-the-way backstory. Belfast is just a little backwater, right? Garrett’s twangy lilt was built to pronounce “Paris” like “Pair-eee.” But how did this band go back to the farm once they saw a little bit of the bright lights of those who fell in love with their music?
Perhaps it’s because they really do serve a higher power. Christian imagery has always been infused in their lyrics — a questioning and probing tone, mostly — but they’ve also recorded an album of devotionals and this new album is probably their most overt effort that’s targeted for general release.
“Yours is the kingdom,” they sing on this opening track, “yours is the power/ Yours is the only glory.” But the way they capture low-end acoustic guitar, resonant and guttural, and the effect on the vocals, like they’re singing by themselves in an empty Superdome, is just so perfectly matched to the subject matter that you never feel you’re being preached to.
On the contrary, the album drives with the force of true believers who simply can’t help themselves, a forward motion with inertia that’s undeniable even on the slowest of tracks. This is at least partly the work of Eric Sanders, whose percussion tends to be heavy on a brushed snare that lends songs the sound of a rippling static energy. The counterpoint is the organ work of Cliff Young, which both grounds that energy and recalls the pipe organs of country churches all over New England.
On “Counting Coup,” that organ gets downright jaunty, with poppy Siiri fronting vocals, like one of those gal-fronted songs on a Belle and Sebastian record: “It’s the same little clock/ That will one day stop/ When love comes along/ And takes me home/ You can’t run fast enough/ To beat me son.” The closing “Good Shepard” (yes, spelled that way) isn’t quite as vampy, but it’s close. And both tunes feature a second harmony track from Siiri late in the song that is piercing in its directness (or maybe that piercing quality comes from a bad mix job — it’s kind of hard to tell).
Still, Tree by Leaf for me were always best when doing the least. With their gold-plated earnestness, they don’t need a lot of dressing up to look their best. Thus, the naked fingerpicking of “M-set,” where you can hear every bit of Garrett’s delivery, like he’s whispering in your ear, is the standout here.
“When the moon has eaten, all she can tonight,” he breathes in layers, “scattering her crumbs of light across the sky/ I will turn the bed down/ I will breathe a sigh/ And if we know our placement, then we know our time.”
“Wonder Worker” opens similarly, a call out to Tree by Leaf’s outstanding “Cold Norwegian Tile,” but quickens its pace with a subtle percussion and quick-sung vocals from the Soucys in their best vocal pairing (which is saying something). The chorus here is a soaring “ahhh-ahhh,” like a primal expression of spiritual ecstasy. I guess there could be “Christian music” this good, but I don’t know where to hear it. And it would be a crime if Tree by Leaf were ever pigeonholed that way.
“I am able to be evil,” Garrett assures us, “but he’s weeding me out.”
No, really, they can do evil. “Mega Meta Utopia” is downright vicious: “I know how to cut you open with the flat edge of a dime.” The best thing about Tree by Leaf’s understanding of faith is their acknowledgment that the real world is often a dirty and uncaring place. To aspire to a “mega meta utopia” is to lead people astray. The way they take “hallelujah” in this song and twist it, as if to mock those who throw it out so casually, might be the best thing on this album.
Amen & Amen is the anti-bubblegum. You need to be willing to invest yourself in it. The return, however, is significant.