Not too long ago, Chapel Hill's Lost in the Trees were one of the largest groups in town. They still are, but these days it has less to do with membership and more about the national recognition Ari Picker has received for his beautifully heartbreaking songs. A few years ago, the band rolled with a revolving line-up that usually hit somewhere in the low teens, complete with a five-or-six piece string section. At that juncture, the joy of Lost in the Trees' shows was the all-consuming swell their numbers allowed them and the thrill of watching them barely hold it together.
Tuesday at Local 506 in an impromptu tune-up for one of the biggest tours in their young career, Lost in the Trees numbered just six, down a cellist from the touring line-up for their last album. Things change, and in this case it is most definitely for the better.
Playing most of their songs with a cello, a violin, drums, keys and acoustic and electric guitar, the band stepped into songs from their upcoming third LP A Church that Fits Our Needs, showing themselves to be a precise and experimental chamber rock band reaching new heights of fractured emotionalism. Like All Alone in an Empty House, reissued in 2010 by Anti- Records, the new songs still revolve around the suicide of Picker's mother, but the music here is even darker than before. The re-tooled ensemble was perfect for the new vibe, filling the songs with both menace and empathy.
Tight string fills sliced through during the intense moments and relented into a gorgeous swell during the tender parts. Gorgeous, haunting female harmonies lent them a new sense of mysterious macabre. Best of all was Picker, a frontman whose transfixing presence comes from the intensity he brings to each song.
Devastating and intricate, all of the songs hit their mark, but "This Dead Bird Is Beautiful" was a cut above. Picker started the song by himself, singing softly and picking his guitar, trembling with feeling. "Don't you say she was weak," he sang, "I'll carry her. Because she breathed I breathe." The band joined in gradually, contorting strings and guitar into an evil, inhuman squall before transitioning into lush orchestral folk backdrop. It was a stunning performance that managed to express both the bitter and soothing elements of healing.
Lost in the Trees start their tour on March 11 in England and return to the Triangle on April 20 at Cat's Cradle.