Arborea: Arborea
Fire Museum Records

Arborea: House of Sticks
Fire Museum Records

VA: Leaves of Life
Borne Recordings

A thorough impression of Arborea's folk sound is gleaned from these three recordings, two of them group releases by Shanti and Buck Curran and the third a compilation project curated and produced by Buck and overseen by the Maine-based husband-and-wife duo. Arborea deftly incorporates into its earthy and ethereal music multiple strands—ancient blues, Appalachian folk music, English madrigals, psychedelic folk—without betraying a fundamental allegiance to a traditional folk music sound.

Arborea's second, self-titled album exudes more of a swampy, backwater blues-folk feel than does its successor. Instrumentals and vocal songs appear, with the spectral, Paris, Texas-styled “Plains of Macedonia” and ruminative acoustic guitar setting “Leaves Among the Ruins” memorable examples of the former; such pieces never come across as space-fillers either but material that's as central to Arborea's persona as its vocal songs. The songs and arrangements (for vocals, guitars, banjo, violin, and percussion) are key but just as critical to the group's brooding sound is Shanti's crystal-clear vocalizing. In “Forewarned,” a setting of haunted mysticism, Shanti's multi-tracked voice weaves hypnotically over a sparse backing of bells and guitar pedal point drone. Backwards phasing treatments at the start of “Black Mountain Road” show the Currans aren't averse to sprinkling modern effects across their tunes, but it's the haunting vocal melodies and cello colourations (by Espers' Helena Espvall) that render the song memorable; Espvall's cello playing in “Red Bird” also deepens the music's intoxicating effect. With vocals and guitar supplemented by a violin's saw, “Seadrift”  is otherwise a stripped-down folk-blues that could have been recorded a hundred years ago, so timeless is its feel, while the slide guitar playing in the drone meditation “Ides of March” likewise gives the material an ancient feel.

If House of Sticks feels slightly less haunted than the self-titled collection, it's no less satisfying—in fact, the songwriting is, if anything, even a bit stronger and the group's delivery more assured. Though nominally Arborea's third album, it actually pairs remastered versions of tracks from the debut outing Wayfaring Summer with several new songs recorded between 2007 and 2008. That an old-school vibe comes through isn't surprising, given that House of Sticks was recorded in a hunting cabin located in the hills of Western Maine and in the parlor of a 160-year-old cottage. Shanti's voice ebbs and flows in a manner appropriate to “River and Rapids” while Buck's repeating banjo patterns provide a stable foundation for the vocal and a strings interjection. Even more timeless is the incantatory “Beirut,” which pairs Shanti's serenading vocal (“Won't you take me down / To New York town”) with crystalline guitar playing. “Alligator” revisits the back-home folk-blues of the self-titled album, while the album's most entrancing song is “Dance, Sing, Fight” whose gentle ambiance is belied by troubling subject matter (“How can we dance when our earth is burning?”). Nevertheless, when the Bucks chant “Black… beige … white / Green … red … blue” (“white” a mere whisper) against a hypnotic bed of dulcimer and slide guitar, the effect is spellbinding. Lovely too is “In the Tall Grass” which ends the album with six serenading minutes of harmonium, acoustic guitar, bells, and Shanti's murmur. Like its predecessor, House of Sticks is free of flab—its eight songs total thirty-three minutes—and leaves the listener wanting more.

Leaves of Life may be twice as long as House of Sticks but needs to be in order to accommodate its nineteen exclusive songs (the digital version of the compilation includes bonus tracks by Jozef van Wissem, Laurent Brondel, Denise Dill, and Plains). Arborea fans will cotton to the compilation, not just because it includes the Currans' “Son of the Moon, Daughter of the Sun” but because as much of it traffics in folk styles like those heard on the Arborea discs (the closest Leaves of Life gets to freak-folk is Big Blood's raggedy “Sick with Information”). Alela Diane with Mariee Sioux get things moving nicely with the folk-blues traditional “The Cuckoo,” after which folk settings haunting (Rio en Medio + Israel Cilio's “Mary,” Silver Summit's “Oaks”), entrancing (Larkin Grimm's “The Butcher”), rollicking (Mica Jones' “Best Life,” Citay's “Little Kingdom”), and breezy (Starless and Bible Black's “All The Finest Beams”) appear. In collaboration with Black Hole Infinity (Myles Baer), Marissa Nadler contributes a customarily entrancing lament (“Dead Wives Club”); Devendra Banhart (his quiver oddly reminscent of Marc Bolan's) can be heard in a demo performance of “Hotel St. Sebastian”; and a virtuosic instrumental excursion comes by way of Eric Carbonara's classical guitar meditation “Sundown at Parakeet Park.” Bolstering the release's appeal is the fact that all proceeds from the sales of Leaves of Life are being donated to the World Food Program and Not On Our Watch agencies to help fight hunger and disease, and support human rights efforts in Africa.

February 2010