As much of the country settles in for a long winter's nap, a solid compliment to the biting gale and blustery accumulation can be found in the debut offering from Chapel Hill, N.C.'s, Lost in the Trees, All Alone in an Empty House. There is no comfort or softness here, as suggested in both the folk orchestra sextuplet's moniker and album title. Its all dark and chill and pain, but the sturdy outfit manages it well across the collection's nine narrative tracks and two instrumental compositions.
From the outset, frontman and guitarist Ari Pickler sets a somber scene. The record's title – and supposedly autobiographical – track is stark and haunting. Laying in first gently with Pickler's voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment, a lonely and troubling setting emerges, populated with thrown-away dreams and sudden deaths of infants, which he describes as "something dirty." He establishes an aural space somewhere between The Decemberists' Colin Meloy's disturbing hyper-literacy and the vulnerability of Okkervil River's Will Shelf. As Pickler cries, "how I hate your soul!" the listener has no choice but to believe him based on the sincerity of his tone, although a sense of redemption is possible as he concedes that "no one is perfect." The lack of resolution in these contrasting sentiments only enhances its credibility.
And while in many other productions, the growing presence of strings would seek to introduce calm and beauty into their arrangements,' the follow-up "Walk Around the Lake" seems only more menacing via the group's trio of string performers – Jenavieve Varga (violin), Leah Gibson (cell0) and Drew Anagnost (cello). Their recurring triplets add to Pickler's growing sense of isolation and paranoia as he accounts his solitude. And while it might be theoretically comforting to believe that a comforting "walk around the lake" is all it takes to cure the ills of a troubled spirit, the number's larger vision demonstrates quite the opposite is true.
A pair of instrumentals – the "Mvt. Sketches" ("I" and the later-to-follow "II" – certainly capably executed by the string section, with flairs of harpsichord by multi-instrumentalist Emma Nadeau and acoustic guitar by Pickler) bookend a series of equally tense productions in "Song for the Painter" and "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang," the former a somber, but no less wrenching account of lost love – albeit with a touch of empathy – and the latter a more raucous number in the tradition of Self's "Last Love Song for Now." At the same time, "Fireplace," with its descriptions of "bloody knives" and "weight of that what is too sharp to hold," depicts the frightening, yet restorative power of a cleansing blaze, and is demonstrably the production's energetic and emotional centerpiece.
Come for: "All Alone in an Empty House"
Stay for: "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang"
"You'll be surprised by: "Fireplace"