Arbouretum
Rites of Uncovering
2007
C



it’s Baltimore quartet Arbouretum’s complete devotion to the electric guitar that betrays them as the sludgy, unadorned, and over-serious mid-‘90s rockers they are. They mix it high and thick, never once turning their attention to a keyboard, a violin, or even a harmonica. (They only occasionally throw the rhythm section a bone.) Winding minor-key progressions leave room for tight, claustrophobic verses, undersold choruses. Then, again, back to the guitars.

The stubborn arrangements come as a bit of a surprise given leading man Dave Heumann’s history, which includes stints with Will Oldham, the Anomoanan, and Papa M. But it makes sense, somehow. Heumann and his cronies are excellent axe-men, and they often drag their compositions well past the six-minute mark to showcase as much. Rangy, contemplative solos fill the canyons of “Pale Rider Blues,” “Sleep of Shiloam,” “The Rise,” and “Two Moons.”

The songwriting isn’t bad, by any means—Heumann’s low-tenor steers through serpentine folk melodies, even as his band carries on in rock-ier dialects. But Heumann’s big-picture lyrics—faith, truth, etc.—are as ceaselessly heavy-handed as his guitar work, giving the whole of Rites an overwrought feel, one that can border on comical depending on your mood. During “Pale Rider Blues,” a verse ends with the line, “Tonight / Tonight / The absence of light,” before rocking a guitar solo best described as “anguished.”

If you can deal with the gloomy digs, Rites of Uncovering offers some compelling moments, none more so than “The Rise.” Beginning, surprisingly, with a muscular drum pattern, Heumann finds a answer to his calls, his bandmates backing every phrase in resplendent harmony: “The day becomes is getting hotter / ’Oh the rise’ / Sends a swell across the water / ’Oh the rise’.” A communal hymn, “The Rise” also features the band’s most explosive guitar work, burning violently for long stretches until the choir returns.

Unfortunately, “The Rise” is the only moment on Rites where Heumann’s quasi-religious rigidity is truly justified. The album isn’t a wholly squandered opportunity: by its end, the band’s monochromatic six-string reliance seems less like a crutch and more like the blunt instrument of questioning Heumann desires. That it robs much of Rites of Uncovering of the dynamics Heumann and company seem capable is a steep price. Just how steep depends on your stomach for self-serious guitar rock.



Reviewed by: Andrew Gaerig
Reviewed on: 2007-01-25
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