Arbouretum’s Rites of Uncovering was one of 2007’s overlooked triumphs, a fusion of delicate, Celtic folk melodies and guitar pyrotechnics. Dave Heumann, the band’s guitarist, singer and main songwriter, laid yearning melodies over tangled chords and buzzing distortion, in songs that were part Appalachian lament and part Hendrix-style freak-out. With Song of the Pearl, Arbouretum’s third album, Heumann’s band slips slightly, but distinctly, into the rock side of the equation. It has a denser, more cohesive sound, more defined rhythms and richer arrangements -- and yet lacks some of the subterranean pull of its predecessor.
Heumann recorded Song of the Pearl with a reconfigured band, adding Steve Strohmeier at second guitar and bringing on drummer Daniel Franz. Walker Teret, who played guitar on Rites of Uncovering, isn’t in the group anymore, but still contributed string arrangements, notably on the title track. Corey Allender is back on bass. This new group has been playing together consistently, and as a result, Song of the Pearl feels more like a collaborative, band-oriented project. The sound is louder, steadier and more enveloping, with less of the thoughtful patience that framed, for instance, “Pale Rider Blues.”
Consider, for instance, the opening song, “False Spring,” one of the album’s strongest. It builds out of a low hum of feedback, latches onto a slow-rocking rhythm and rides it all the way to the end. The song has heft, even majesty. There’s a scintillating guitar break just before the midpoint that layers acoustic and electric instruments with feedback, then slips back from frenzy into the same steady beat. Yet where, for instance, 2007’s “Signposts and Instruments” held the breaths and stops of a single man in thought – testing phrases, trying guitar licks – this one rampages steadily forward. It is, perhaps the best song on the album, but less ruminative and more outward facing than anything from the previous album.
Song of the Pearl is dominated by hard rhythms, but it also has some worthy slower songs. The title track may be the most gorgeous of these, its mesh of radiant guitars braced by swoops and throbs of strings. The lyrics are tethered loosely to British folk traditions, with a vaguely supernatural image of a girl rising out of the water, and the melody is subtle, almost whispered, until it crests in an effortless octave-jumping refrain.
The album closes with a cover of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” and it is here that you can watch Heumann start with folk and transform it to rock. The song’s melody stretches to a ritual pace and Heumann’s voice flutters in exhausted tremolo, persevering against the murk. It is an infinitely more effortful performance than Dylan’s, which is sad in its own way, but far less heavy. Dylan is only saying goodbye to a girlfriend. Heumann is looking for meaning in the universe.
Song of the Pearl is, perhaps, not as stunning as Rites of Uncovering, but still represents another strong entry in Arbouretum’s discography. More assured, but not quite as mysteriously evocative, it still might be one of the better guitar-heavy albums you’ll hear this year.