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Heavy Weights

Dave Heumann and Arbouretum mature into their most devastating record yet

Dave Heumann (Left) Finally Has a Stable Arbouretum Lineup.

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Arbouretum plays a CD-release show at the Talking Head March 3.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 2/25/2009

One of the very first things you notice about Arbouretum's Dave Heumann is an unexpected smallness. He talks quietly, almost to himself, in spare sentences, every word as considered as a gunshot. You get the feeling he'd rather be in a cave somewhere than the center of attention, no less the center of a rock band that feels, more and more, to be poised to inherit the Lungfish throne of shaman-rock.

For two albums, a split EP, and who knows how many lineup changes, Arbouretum has reached further and further inward, honing and intensifying an idiosyncratic sound that is both doomy and folky, visceral and transcendent. They're powerful songs that sound both angry and melancholic, yet carry a sort of internal hypnotic, pacifying churn. The band's newest release, Song of the Pearl, is its most refined and to-the-point--the noodling of 2007's Rites of Uncovering is gone, the stylistic experiments are exhausted.

More specifically, Arbouretum has perfected its relationship between full, loud, and heavy rock band and a songwriting core that comes from Heumann alone in a bedroom with an acoustic guitar. The success is in that translation. "The entire band in the room is the germ of the entire arrangement," Heumann says over lunch in a Mount Vernon café. "But not so much the song itself."

This basic band structure is an oddly apt reflection of Heumann's sometimes brutally sad, lonesome lyricism. The haunt that hangs over these songs is unrelenting--heartbreak in Heumann's lyrical world isn't something to be lingered on, remembered simply for the sake of its poetry. It's something to be remembered because you just can't help it--because this shit won't leave you alone, through highway drives watching "cities slip by," or drunken forgetting, or nights spent in the beds of strangers: "last night found me with a woman in her bed/ who was new to me instead," he sings in "Another Hiding Place." This is what a haunt means and, unless you have lamps floating across living rooms, the haunt of failed love is the only haunt that matters.

Something odd, but not necessarily a fault, with Pearl is that Heumann's words are often obscured; not totally, but he makes you work for them, whether excavating from thick, roiling psych guitar arrangements or through a light distortion effect. The words are there, and still in Heumann's mammoth, solemn voice-of-a-giant, but he's not spoon-feeding them to you.

The Bob Dylan cover "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" is an exception, as Heumann sounds like he's sitting next to you, singing in your ear. The words are simple, unshrouded by metaphor or decoration, and they repeat, eventually burying the song and record in the dark refrain "and if only my own true love was waiting/ and if I could hear her heart softly pounding/ only if she was lying beside me/ then I'd lie in my bed once again."

The song is slower than most on Pearl, but it's still full and thickly arranged, a poignant reconsideration; its looming clouds of matte gray guitar are some of the darkest on the record. It's a small example of the tension between the small and wounded that feels at the heart of the band and the thundering arrangements that carry it. "Maybe half the arrangement is in my head, and it takes being in an effective space for the other half" to take shape, Heumann says. Songs emerge after "taking basic chord and melody ideas to the band, and building from there. It's going to sound a lot different with everyone playing together than me at home with an acoustic guitar."

Finally, after some seven years of existence, with Pearl Arbouretum has formed into a solid, consistent unit. Rites Of Uncovering had no less than three lineup changes during its creation. "We would do a session and it didn't really [sound like a] finished record," Heumann recalls. "We did another session in New York, but this time the band had already slightly changed the lineup. We used a lot of songs from that, [but] Rites still didn't feel finished. It wound up taking like two years."

If Pearl feels more devastating, it's, at least in part, because it doesn't fuck around in Deadhead noodling or more drawn out folk passages. Whereas Rites songs veered all over the place in length from a few minutes all the way up to 11 minutes, Pearl's songs hover consistently around the four to five minute mark.

"We wanted to focus on the songs themselves rather than having a bunch of extended instrumental passages," Heumann says. "It's gratifying for everyone in the band to play stuff that's really solid and immediate in that way."

That is a contrast from even last year's Kale split with Pontiak, with its "Time Doesn't Lie" highlight, a 10-minute song that burns through its last five minutes in a wallop of pure freeform instrumental jam. It's fantastic but it doesn't condense the melancholy behind Heumann's songwriting in the same way as almost any of the material on Pearl.

"That part of the song comes and we're already on 'ten' right there," he says, referring to the song's intensity. "Instead of it progressing dynamically, it just sort of falls apart. That wasn't my idea. I think it was [drummer] Dan [Franz's] or [bassist] Corey [Allender]'s idea to do it that way."

"Time Doesn't Lie," or at least its second-half jam, feels like the voice of a band rocking out for the sake of rocking out. It's wicked fun and good for waking up to, but in the evening when winter is melting too slowly outside the window and various haunts dance around the dark rooms of the house, it's the instrumental voices of Pearl's incredibly refined band and Heumann's own voice--singing scenes of "newspapers stacked to the ceiling that dim cobwebs claim" or "no one is calling for you/ all those voices are gone"--that comforts you. "If there is no loneliness there is no reflection allowed," he soothes on "Infinite Corridors." "No one to color your form in its nakedness now."

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