The first video released to accompany Arbouretum’s latest album, Song of the Pearl, features black-and-white footage of a family following train tracks, suitcases in tow, and homeless-looking people living under bridges. It’s a dark and gloomy affair, akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, yet there’s also a radiance of hope; a hint that—despite their obvious displacement and whatever turmoil took them there—the people in the video seem somewhat happy, content even. There’s a simple appeal to their survival, and this lack of complication creates an atmosphere of triumph over adversity. Musically, Song of the Pearl—Arbouretum’s third album and second for Thrill Jockey—sits on a similar lay line of hope amidst apparent hopelessness. Melodic shafts of sun peek through gray skies of slow, sludgy guitars and solid, rolling rhythms as Arbouretum mainstay, Dave Heumann, spins poetic yarns that sound as cautionary as catchy.
The song featured in the video, “Down by the Fall Line”, is indicative of Arbouretum’s current musical direction—one that ventures into a more-conventional rock sound than its prior folk-infused work. Song of the Pearl, it seems, is the work of a band reassuring itself that it is indeed a band. While Heumann has always been the principal architect behind Arbouretum, here he sticks with the same set of musicians throughout a full-length release for the first time. Most notable is the addition of guitarist, Steve Strohmeier, whose six-string assaults intertwine with Heumann’s own playing with a driving intricacy.
Some of his old cohorts make appearances, such as former guitarist, Walker Teret, who provides strings on the strung-out ballad that is the sumptuous title track, but the overall-group dynamic gives this record a sense of clarity that its prior releases missed. While it’s true this newfound cohesiveness has smoothed over some of the band’s raw edges, it has been replaced by a musical maturity that seems like a natural step forward for Heumann. Each of the eight songs on display here have strong backbones—musical vertebrae that stand steady no matter how blustery the guitar playing gets. From the slowcore Dylan cover “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, which closes the album in a wash of lazy fuzz-laden folk/rock, to the country-paced “Another Hiding Place” to “Infinite Corridors”, which dissolves into a slew of Hendrix-style riffing, Song of the Pearl comfortably flits through a variety of styles while always retaining an unmistakable Arbouretum hue.
While some fans of the band will surely be disappointed with the shortened song lengths—Heumann’s previous releases featured tracks that regularly trundled past six minutes. Only one song does so here (“Infinite Corridors”); the band still manages to fit a myriad of musical twists and turns into its newly truncated works. Tunes speed up, slow down, rock out, tread water and burst forth from beneath the waves. Muscular, Crazy Horse-style chugging often gives way to melodic sing-song rhythms, and repetitiveness is used as a key element in the songwriting process to tie parts together, rather than acting as a musical crutch.
Sure, the raucous, chugging guitars, do dominate—emphasized especially during the record’s second half with hints of heavy rock found in “Thin Dominion”, “Infinite Corridors” and “The Midnight Cry”—but it’s the slower, folk-influenced and slightly more-psychedelic songs that stand out. The aforementioned “Down by the Fall Line” is hypnotic, both musically and lyrically, with guitars stretching out in a haze, as Heumann talks of watchmen driving wolves from towns. Slower still is the title track, which rolls out on a circular melody that comes drenched in an essence of antiquity, making it sound old or perhaps lived in. Atop Nick Drake-strings and finger-picking guitar, Heumann sounds like a medieval troubadour regaling a crowd of onlookers.
This ability to evoke vivid visuals (it’s difficult to hear an Arbouretum song without picturing some sort of scene in your head) gives the record a cinematic quality. The opening couplet of “False Spring” (“Come along we’ll ride together / Not far to go, but it’s too far to turn back”) invites us on a road trip, yet the undertow of the sea-shanty rhythm that propels it along conjures up images of pirates. “Another Hiding Place”, the perfect amalgamation of ‘70s Southern rock and British folk, finds us traveling once again: “On this highway / With the sunlight in my eyes / And the cities gliding by / Thoughts are unprotected.” While travel is a key lyrical trait throughout, love, especially the lost kind, also shows up. The title track finds the narrator waiting for nights to turn back into days while ruminating on a woman who is long gone.
Yet, like the aforementioned music video, there’s always a hint of hope to be found within each song. It’s the musical equivalent of knowing that winter will always give way to spring no matter how harsh that season may seem at the time. This juxtaposition of light and dark—the thudding downward strumming of “Thin Dominion”, appearing immediately after the lilting title track, for example—is ultimately what makes this album a richly rewarding listening experience
In essence, Song of the Pearl is an earthy record with dirt under its fingernails and eyes always fixed firmly on the horizon. It’s not an easy listen by any means—slow and sludgy in parts, repetitive and raucous in others—yet it is ultimately fulfilling. And while it might not be as interesting or idiosyncratic as its predecessor, Rites of Uncovering, it is a more-cohesive record that, in turn, makes for more a more-satisfying whole. Like the people depicted in their music video, there’s a simple appeal to Arbouretum’s survival, one that insinuates its doom-laden musical outlook has a bright future.