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ARBOURETUM
The Gathering
Thrill Jockey
Format: CD / LP / MP3
Release Date: February 22, 2011
By Joseph Martin March 28, 2011

Every band – or, rather, every long-lived band – hits a moment of reckoning, and Arbouretum’s came with 2009’s Song of the Pearl. After the growing pains of 2004’s mostly one-man show Long Live the Well-Doer and the blues reduction on the 2006 breakthrough Rites of Uncovering, Pearl found bandleader Dave Heumann hunkering down with his dudes and setting about the construction of the world’s first classic rock-slowcore hybrid. But where Pearl’s version went down like a 7-Eleven snack, mid-tempo filler feeling somehow both too baked and too re-fried, The Gathering vaults into hearty meal territory. It’s like the band whipped out a copy of Uncovering and remembered who they were, resurrecting stompbox psychedelia and Oldham-style vocal haunt to fill out the spaces of their cosmic crawl. Given the long form, axe-wielding delights of their pre-Pearl material, it’s heartening to hear Heumann wending around the garagey pulse of “Song of the Nile” or burning oblivion of “Waxing Crescents.”

Stoner rock recidivism aside, The Gathering’s thoroughly its predecessor’s child. Far from Uncovering’s match-lit gazes into darkness, this new record pursues Pearl’s mystical, riddle-me-this poesy, leaning hard on journeyman imagery – there’s even a cover of Cash/Jennings/Nelson/Kristofferson supergroup The Highwaymen’s classic theme song, and vague, disconnected references to Jung’s infamous Red Book. This isn’t to say earlier records didn’t play with or indulge white-bearded sketches of the numinous, just that they did so without annoying urgency, letting observations sit above music for listeners to examine at their leisure. With its occasional high-flown battery of sinners and shamans, as well its Jungian skeleton, The Gathering continues Arbouretum’s slow march into self-seriousness, dropping blurry-edged contemplation making earlier lyrics ignorable auxiliary to the band’s taut, skin-crawling rock thump.

All short and arranged with seams on full view, Pearl’s songs felt buried by lyrical hubris. The Gathering manages an aural landscape in step with its Burning Man headspace. Heumann’s voice coos with a defiant backwoods loneliness, striping the lyrics’ didactic cheese away and projecting the sung equivalent of a huddled, dying mountaineer, his tenor settling for an often heartbreaking clearness and constancy. On aforementioned “The Highwayman,” Heumann and company cleave to rock’s oldest drumbeat and walk, guitars and bass murmuring, with the awful purpose of folks who’ve figured out there’s no destination. The sentiment fits Arbouretum’s Neil Young-biting commitment to taking ragged, used rock devices and fixing them up with elbow grease, nearly vaulting to a declaration of purpose.

The Gathering’s real meat recovers potential, shifting between slowly mutating jam fodder like standout “Song of the Nile,” evil apparitions like “When Delivery Comes,” and freight train skull-shakers like “The Empty Shell.” Arbouretum’s an album band, and like their spiritual forebears, traffic in unexpected shifts of tone – a dry and temporary silence during “Shell” or a sudden metallic lift on “Nile.” By those lights, Gathering may well have limited appeal. But in a world where groups sprung from twin virtues, woodshedding and practiced chemistry, have become an undervalued commodity, Arbouretum seems to fit into the same hallowed category as local peers Lower Dens and Pontiak. It’s their fairly parochial ambition lending backwards-glancing meditations a serious air of the remarkable.

Visit: Arbouretum | Thrill Jockey
Purchase: Insound | eMusic