LOST IN THE TREES
All Alone in an Empty House
Classical and pop music have a long history together. Certainly the Beatles, and more specifically, George Martin, weren’t the first to consummate the marriage of these strange bedfellows, when a double string quartet was employed to embellish the emotions of loneliness and alienation of the protagonists in “Eleanor Rigby.” In retrospect, that was a turning point in the joining of two genres that seem naturally at odds: pop with its looser, less stringent structure, and classical with its deep history, dramatic intentions and demanding virtuosity aren’t the most logical of unions.
Ari Picker (a.k.a Lost in the Trees) comes to both naturally as a pop musician also trained in classical composition. The North Carolina artist, who first recorded with a band called the B-Sides, which morphed into The Never, uses his love of orchestration and schooling at the prestigious Berklee College of Music to create what he describes as “orchestral folk music.” Anyone familiar with Nick Drake will understand that this is not a novel concept, but that doesn’t make Picker’s album any less relevant, experimental or challenging.
It’s also not an easy listen. The provocative lyrics to the opening title track are taken from an argument his parents had when he was growing up, and touch on the death of his twin sisters at childbirth, and his mother’s subsequent depression. The angry, poignant, often shockingly direct lyrics are underpinned by acoustic guitar, but enhanced by taut, nearly strangulating classical strings and horns that make it even more distressing, melancholy and moving. The nearly six-minute song incorporates elements, musical and conceptual, that inform the album’s remaining half-hour.
Picker’s quivering, fragile tenor voice, like Drake’s, frames and grounds his tracks, many of which are sung with such intimate resignation that it must be difficult to revisit them nightly on stage. Titles such as “Wooden Walls of the Forest Church,” “A Room Where Your Paintings Hang” and “We Burn the Leaves” indicate how easily and effectively Picker uses language to paint his delicate and detailed aural landscapes without even hearing them.
Like the finest art, both visual and aural, these songs are best appreciated by returning to them repeatedly. The intimate brushstrokes of the instruments intertwine with both tenderness and, when called for, rage to create mental images impossible to shake. The mesh of orchestration and melody could be overused, distorting material by forcing both to coexist where the relationship isn’t innate. Picker never succumbs to that temptation, using his orchestrations –many influenced by Bernard Herrmann’s Alfred Hitchcock soundtracks –to add color, not just heft, to his selections. Most start with a simply picked guitar, with embellishments added as the tunes unfurl. In the case of “Love on My Side,” that means only chimes and percussion. Two instrumentals, “Mvt. 1 Sketch” and “Mvt. 2 Sketch” dispense with folk entirely, focusing on romantic and demanding original classical compositions that create their own vibrant, highly charged visuals.
As its title suggests, All Alone in an Empty House takes us to a place that’s both quiet and eerie, an audio “Twilight Zone” where there are few rules and even fewer expectations. Picker creates a montage of voice, acoustic guitar, horns and strings informed by the past, but wholly in the present.
His ability to connect the dots between the past and present creates tension so vital to this set’s success. Contemporary artists such as Joanna Newsom and the Decemberists are expanding the reach of classically oriented approaches on the indie map. Picker, working with subtlety, grace and finesse, creates a challenging musical canvas that fortifies his unique and personal vision and promises a timelessness attained only by his renowned influences.