Lost in the Trees and New Music Raleigh offer bigger sounds, smaller emotions

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Lost in the Trees with New Music Raleigh
Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke Campus, Durham
Friday, Dec. 7, 2012

With Lost in the Trees, the focal point will always be Ari Picker. The singer and leader of the string-abetted art rock ensemble is a transfixing presence on stage. This isn't just because of the subjects he sings about, though his tales of familial dysfunction and tributes to his late mother are certainly filled with overwhelming emotions. Picker genuinely seems to be baring his soul every night, not just singing his songs, but reliving the stories within, his voice rising from a fractured whisper to a cathartic shout when the narratives reach their climax.

Friday's Duke Performances concert emphasized another aspect of Picker's talents. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music with a symphony under his belt, his songs are infused with the complexities of modern classical music, strings implemented in a way that complicates arrangements instead of just making them bigger. Joined by the 16-piece New Music Raleigh chamber orchestra, the band emphasized its melodic intricacies — sometimes at the detriment of its emotional resonance.

The mix seemed off early in the performance, blunting the rhythm section and burying Picker's vocals during versions of "Neither Here Nor There" and "Tall Ceilings," both off of this year's A Church That Fits Our Needs. The sound improved as the evening went on, allowing the ensemble to show off impressive new arrangements. String swells and harp combined beautifully during "Red," swirling in bright counterpoint to the song's aggressive main riff. In the opening to "Garden," blasts of bass, tuba and cello clashed colorfully with gauzy gusts of violin, becoming even more dramatic than the beautiful album version.

But all this additional instrumentation distracted from Picker's performance, diminishing the group's reliably overwhelming emotions. This drawback was thrown into sharp relief during the evening's version of "This Dead Bird Is Beautiful." The Church standout gave Picker the opportunity to start things off, patiently strumming a guitar and singing with a delicate but piercing croon. The other players entered gradually, strings, piano and the operatic voice of Emma Nadeau building to a dark crescendo as Picker cried out, "Hell won't come into my house, not while you're around."

Renditions of "All Alone In An Empty House" and "Walk Around the Lake" found a similar balance during the encore, suggesting that the ensemble may have just needed time to feel out each other and the room. But while the evening's highlights were lush in a way Lost in the Trees' ordinary concerts can't match, it mainly served as a reminder of how good the outfit has become at performing Picker's powerful odes. The band was bigger, but the emotions often felt smaller, making for an intriguing performance that couldn't match the intensity of the band's regular performances.

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