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.