Arriving in the wake of two acclaimed full-lengths and a singles collection (House of Sticks), Arborea's fourth platter, Red Planet, captures the group—multi-instrumentalists Shanti and Buck Curran as always, with cellist Helena Espvall (of Espers) guesting—in perfect form. The Maine-based group's sound has matured and reached a stage of refinement without becoming overly polished, and there's still a raw quality to the material but a rawness that feels natural and honest. The album's a rich stylistic tapestry that includes instrumentals, incantations, covers, and folk-drones, with the Currans assembling the songs' arrangements using a rich array of string instruments (banjo, tenor ukulele, guitar, violin) and exotica (harmonium, hammered dulcimer, music box, flute, kalimba).
One could easily imagine the brief opening instrumental “The Fossil Sea” playing at the start of Paris, Texas in the absence of of Ry Cooder's justifiably celebrated music. Following that scene-setter, Arborea moves into deep drone-folk territory with an ethereal take on the traditional “Black is the Colour,” with Shanti's haunting voice hewing closely to the song's classic melodic line while Buck more freely contributes bluesy slide guitar shadings to enhance the hypnotic mood and a thick harmonium pedal point burns at the song's core. The later “Wolves” casts a similar spell though this time the vocals are accompanied by electric guitar and hammered dulcimer playing. Elsewhere, the lilting ballad “Spain” gets no small boost from the addition of Espvall's gorgeous playing, as does the equally stirring “Arms + Horses.” And don't be too quick to eject the CD when the album's final song, “A Little Time,” finishes or you'll miss the hidden track “Torchbearer.”
Though Shanti and Buck are both integral to Arborea's sound, it must be said that her singing is the group's not-so-secret weapon. Shanti's got one of those classic voices that effortlessly pierce the soul and go straight to the heart. One can hear, for example, how powerful her near-whisper is when it peels back the mournful layers of Tim Buckley's incantatory “Phantasmagoria in Two,” but, in truth, every vocal she contributes to the album proves to be as affecting. And though the slow-burning folk-drone of the title cut flirts with psych-folk, make no mistake: Arborea's music most assuredly isn't psych-folk but rather timeless folk music of the most unadulterated kind (sounding as if it could have been composed during the Civil War, Red Planet's “Careless Love” is merely one example of many), a music that extends a tradition that includes Steeleye Span, the Strawbs, and Fairport Convention and carries on today in the work of artists like Marissa Nadler and, of course, Arborea. If you count Sandy Denny singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” as one of your favourite things, you'll likely end up adding Arborea to that list too. Long may they run.