Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teatime at the Monkey House

Arboreal EP
Box of Baby Birds

Lately arrived in Austin via my original hometown of Chicago, Gary Calhoun James (along with drummer Alance Ward and a host of proficient overdubs) makes lovely music to sip tea along to whilst awaiting the change of the autumn leaves. Arboreal's five songs make show a mastery of numerous instrumental colors: accordion, piano, electric organ, spare electric guitar, skilfully arranged and performed backing vocals. "Break Little Branches" is like a satisfied sigh that lasts five whole minutes, violin and James' double-tracked vocals trading lovely melodies over a drum beat that performs the difficult task of filling in a lot of space in a very measured tempo without rushing things.

"Cardinal" and "Red Lights and Chimes" traffic in similar territory, but without the guest strings, there's just a little too much consonance and harmony for comfort's sake -- the listener is left waiting for a kind of jolt of something extroverted or aggressive just to break up all the the gentle waves-lapping-against-the-shore feel. "Folk Saints" has a slightly odd intro which mixes backward guitars and processed vocals; then it segues into a minimal acoustic guitar piece that's the least orchestrated on the EP.

"Coins, Letters, Numbers," the unexpected closer, proves that Box of Baby Birds are capable of upsetting the applecart a bit. After a first section of mandolin strumming and more sleepy prettiness, a faster tom-driven tempo and some beautifully played electric bass (James once again) finally wires the band into some caffeinated grooves. "We can't fight like they can," James sings through a bit of a filter, finally displaying some rock and roll emotion in his vocals.

Like their obvious forebears, Neutral Milk Hotel, Box of Baby Birds sound best when they mix a little dissonance in with all the waves of perfectly stacked, polite melodies. Even when "Coins" moves back into folk territory, there's a diminished chord feel to the outro that helps carry over some of the tension from the long-awaited fuzz section. Gary James has got the chops to create whatever sounds he hears in his head in the studio, and I hope he follows his muse to some weirder places still now that he's joined us down here in Texas.

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