All Alone in an Empty House is Ari Picker’s sophomore release. It begins hauntingly enough, with the opening line, “Spent my whole life on you / and I built you this gorgeous house”. It quickly deteriorates with the next line: “To put up with your bitched mouth / and I’ve thrown all my dreams right out”. This flip-flop between the haunting brilliance of sparring orchestration and Damien Rice-ish nausea-inducing pretentiousness continues throughout the record. Thankfully for us, the album sides more on the brilliance of beautifully recorded music than the overwrought affectation of so many “sensitive” acoustic-guitar playing male singers. It’s also harder to find arrogance with Picker’s music when you read more about him. For instance, those opening lines mentioned above from the title track are words taken directly from an argument Picker’s parents had while he was growing up. The more you read, the more sincere you believe his lyrics (and intentions) to be, even if the honest catharsis of purging his deepest secrets can wear a little thin. He has mentioned that he does not enjoy music for music’s sake, but rather as a means of personal expression, a dangerous claim to make in this day and age of indie-cred and faux emotions. Yet the indie world is definitely eating up Picker’s brand of classical-infused pop music. (Check out the group Destino, who have pegged themselves as ‘popera’, for an example of a really bad genre-crossover.)
Picker is yet another Berklee College of Music alum who aims to impress with his compositorial acrobatics. For the most part, it pays off. Unfortunately, the record does not invite repeated lessons for sheer enjoyment. Instead, All Alone in an Empty House plays more like a stunning and jarring work of physical art, beautiful in its own right, but ultimately more suitable in the isolated halls of a museum instead of blaring through your stereo speakers. This realization is no more clear then on the second track “Walk Around the Lake”, with its horror strings that are unnecessarily dramatic. The track sounds like it would play against the silenced (and slowed down) moment of a horrific scene in an indie horror film, and should be listened to as such. It’s impressive stuff, but once again alienates the listener against repeated listens—unless of course you’re into that sort of sadomasochistic stuff, but that’s your own deal.
The album breaks a couple of times for a fully instrumental quartet orchestration, accented by the timbres of a harpsichord. The moments are once again impressive, but too dramatic and raucous to induce more than a few listens. Still, even with all of the seemingly negative aspects of this skillfully produced record, its ambitious beauty is undeniable. It is definitely more suitable as a one-off listen, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Not every album needs to be overplayed to death, generating such familiarity that it inevitably loses the emotion-filled spark of interest it may have once had. Somewhere along the lines it was unofficially agreed upon that the true test of a musical work’s greatness is its invitation to listen to it over and over and over again. Although this is undeniably one aspect of a good record, it is not an exclusive feature.
The biggest irony on the record (of many) is the album’s misguided thematic interpretation of being all alone in an empty house. Picker is definitely not alone on this record. He is accompanied by a plethora of quite talented musicians who accent his strained vocals, adding character and orchestrated depth to his simple-ish song structures. Even reading press releases for the band, the impression is simply that All Alone in an Empty House is a musical family affair. Picker is accompanied by 14 other musicians and together they fill up the space of emptiness, sounding more like a band of spirits haunting the house they claim is empty. The result is eloquent and effectual. Picker stands out as the sole living being surrounded by ghostly instrumentation masking his occasional arrogance. On “Love on My Side” he sings, “I got love songs / I got songs that make you cry / I got all the things a man could need / I’ve got to see life with two eyes / I’ve got all this love on my side”. There is no crying here, but the empathy is unavoidable, intermittently veering towards pity. It is this that leaves me baffled. Picker is definitely singing from some real place, but it is debatable whether what we hear is a glimpse of intended private emotion, or an affected state with the indirect intention to manipulate the listener into feeling sorry for him. It’s unclear which it is meant to be, which is why All Alone in an Empty House continues to teeter between heartfelt brilliance and overwrought affected insincerity. Its complexity and contradictory nature is why it is not necessary to decide…just yet.
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