With Lost in the Trees, Ari Picker has pulled off something most musicians will envy: He took a mulligan on a significant portion of his early career. In 2007 and 2008, respectively, Picker released the Time Taunts Me EP and the All Alone in an Empty House LP on Chapel Hill's Trekky Records. After signing to Anti-, a high-profile indie label studded with big names like Tom Waits and Neko Case, he spent the bulk of 2010 and 2011 doing it all over again.
First came Anti-'s new version of All Alone in an Empty House, expanded and reworked by producer Scott Solter. Not to be outdone, Trekky expanded Time Taunts Me into an LP last year. It paid off handsomely: NPR began covering the band religiously in 2010, and that's only the most obvious marketing coup here. But if this sounds like a story about canny marketing gone well, it's just the palest silver lining of a tragedy.
Picker's mother, Karen Shelton, committed suicide in 2009; it's fitting that a tribute to her ends the band's cycle of waiting and déjà vu. Her portrait appears on the cover of A Church That Fits Our Needs, the new Lost in the Trees LP, and her life and death are its subjects. Picker treats them with his usual elevation, dealing in elemental archetypes—hearts and churches, rivers and forests, tears and golden glows, all reverberating endlessly in a hermetic sphere of abstraction. "Icy river/ Put your arms around my mother," he offers. "I burned her body in the furnace/ 'Til all that was left was her glory." Even Picker's most scathingly direct lyrics have an aura of fairy-tale unreality. It's a space too coded and private for any but the most churlish critic to dissect. Suffice it to say that the two qualities that I often have trouble relating to in LITT's music—humorlessness and the relentless pursuit of the same big, transcendent feeling—are here unimpeachably tied to and merited by their subject matter.
If Zach Condon of Beirut's muse were the severe modernist master Igor Stravinsky instead of the flamboyant pan-Balkan composer Goran Bregoviç, he might make something like A Church That Fits Our Needs. This album invites equally strong comparisons to the most ingratiating indie pop and the most forbidding repertory.
Picker, to wit, is an indie rocker who also studied music at Berklee and premiered his first opus with the N.C. Symphony, so he has a broad but selective array of tools to choose from. The timeline of his perceptible influences begins circa the Baroque period, cuts off abruptly at the death of Shostakovich and picks up again with the late-'90s advent of Death Cab for Cutie; you'll notice a conspicuous punk-shaped blank in the middle. Picker's glassy tenor is so pristine that it can seem evacuated, especially when further aerated by Emma Nadeau's harmonies. It's never allowed to be anything but purely beautiful.
Still, Picker is a formidable songwriter and arranger, with an uncommon knack for easy melodies that resolve on major thirds or fifths. He incorporates complex meters and smuggles in tonalities from the academy. The record's technical aspects are much more compelling than its emotional ones: the screw-threaded strings that so energize "Golden Eyelids" when they arrive, the nervy percussion slanting through "Neither Here Nor There" and the orchestration on "Icy River," almost Peter and the Wolf-like in its verge-of-speech expressivity. Here, a large cast of musicians adds chamber instruments and horns to his spare songcraft. If you've come to get your heartstrings tugged, you won't be disappointed. Even I feel misty during "Red," where an aching vocal melody cascades down in slim torrents through lush crags of harp, percussion and strings.
But it helps that "Red" is on the front half of the album, before my heartstrings start feeling threadbare. Picker is demonstrably capable of writing music of immense subtlety and personality, but he has the habit of diluting his shards of dissonance and darting polyrhythms with sweeping strings or choral vocals that signify an emotional hard sell. Furthermore, his vocal writing is less advanced than his instrumental writing, transmitting feelings that are very large but not complex. Seldom is music so unambiguous and consistent about how you are supposed to feel—that is, deeply moved and self-reverent.
Picker's sensibility is a furnace that burns away everything but glory, and glory without contrast becomes anesthetic. The relentless splendor can make the intimate music feel curiously remote. How high and for how long can you soar before losing your sense of human proportions, up in all that blank white air?