What leads bands to do split albums? Besides trying to cross-pollinate the market, one might idealistically suppose that a similar aesthetic is all two bands need to decide to join forces. Though this may end up being a risky proposition; if the bands are too simpatico, their respective sounds may blend together into anonymity. Apparently, mutual appreciation brought Hush Arbors and Arbouretum together for their split Aureoloa on Abrouretum’s label, Thrill Jockey Records. But just as the shared element in their band names promises some similarity, both bands stake out similar territory, fuzzy folk, or psychedelic Americana. And if you’re not careful, you might not realize that there are two different bands at play here.
The major difference between Hush Arbors and Arbouretum could be explained as a kind of photonegative. Hush Arbors uses a quieter, folky approach, rounded out with fuzzy accoutrements, while Arbouretum is a heavier band singing folk melodies. If you draw a Venn diagram to map out their similarities, it might leave not much unique margin on either side. Both groups are well within the Neil Young lineage. Keith Wood, the mastermind of Hush Arbors, sings in a strange and strained falsetto. His opening track, “Lowly Ghost”, actually sounds like the opening title track on Young’s second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, though perhaps a bit more laidback than his predecessor’s song. It’s a shuffling acoustic based sound that gives way to fuzzy guitar interludes. On the other hand, David Heumann, who helms Arbouretum, goes for the heavier Young sound, the fuzzy vamps that set up traditional sounding melodies. You know you’ve hit the Arbouretum side because the vocals are slightly lower (not quite falsetto), and the fuzzy guitar lead, winding like a snake dance, takes center stage, doubling the vocal melody rather than weaving in and out around the vocals.
The shared tree reference in the two bands’ names will clue you in enough to the sound of these bands. Beyond Neil Young, there is a more recent history of this style. If Young is the granddaddy, Will Oldham is the recent master of weird falsetto, itchy folk. There are the requisite beards (Heumann sounds like he is singing through his woolly patch). Wood’s falsetto recalls another forest-related band, Woods, though he goes less for the tight song writing of ‘60s psychedelia. And, of course, Bon Iver is the most successful paragon of this movement.
So where do these two bands stand? Though Wood has lent his hand to many different projects, from Thurston Moore’s solo work to Six Organs of Admittance and Current 93, this is his own project and it has the singer-songwriter feel. On his recent full length album, Yankee Reality, released by Moore’s label, Ecstatic Peace, Wood blends memorable melodies with lyrical stories and a nice jangly guitar sound, like a minimalist Byrds. But on Aureola, something strange happens. All the pieces sound too isolated. His vocals, as usual, soar high in the mix—and a loud falsetto can get on your nerves. The electric and acoustic guitars are playing in different rooms, to a previously laid drums track. The beat goes on for the most part not registering changes in the song. Now this recording process is typical, especially for solo projects, but you don’t want the record to sound that way. The highlight is “Prayer of Forgetfulness”, which has a nice, driving, Stonesy chord based guitar riff, though not as flashy as that Keith would do it. The guitar sound is enticing, bright but dirty. This set of songs is less dynamic than Yankee Reality, too laidback and too similar to offer much to standout.
As for Arbouretum, it too falls on this side of memorable. The band is almost there—one could imagine it discovering proggier territory, if it could leave find a path out of the woods. It would be a desert soundscape, where the reverb-drenched guitars go the same way as Earth’s spacey Westerns; or it could go underwater, with the strange combinatory magic of the best Black Mountain songs. But Heumann seems too bound to tradition. The first track on Arbouretum’s side is the best—and probably the best on the album—“New Scarab”, a psychedelic drone that sets the blueprint for the remaining two songs: vocal part, guitar freak out, done. Here, the fuzzy bass and drums form a tipping foundation, like a rocking ship that simultaneously feels queasy-making and safe. The song’s single melodic line will get into your head, whether voiced by the guitar or droned by the voice, finally drilled into you by the bass and marching drums. Everyone’s doing the same thing. But by the final track, “St. Anthony’s Fire”, the jam sessions feel overly familiar, and while the drums and bass double time the vocal outro, you feel like you’re at a bad outdoor show.
Theoretically, this split was a marriage of true minds. And it is. But it has the same predictability and repetition that gives marriage a bad name. So while it’s called a split album, it might be better if these bands really split. That way their unique sound won’t be threatened by the likeness of the others. Though Arbouretum comes out more interestingly here than Hush Arbors, Wood’s music is a more intriguing in its weirdness. He does better on his own long player, while the short burst of Arbouretum is just enough. You can see the forest for the trees.