- by Bill Golembeski Release Date:2017-03-24 Label: Thrill Jockey
I like this album a lot. But trying to discuss music can be confusing. The other day, I asked Mr. Radue, aka Jazz Guy, to explain the difference between Bebop and Hard Bop jazz. I think he did a good job. After all, he is Jazz Guy. But all I recalled later was that Bebop was really fast, and Hard Bop was more traditional, as it returned to blues roots. But then it gets all muddled up. There’s Bebop that is a bit more than Bebop but isn’t quite Hard Bop. Then there’s Hard Bop that isn’t quite hard enough, but it’s not Bebop, either. Sometimes, though, a Bebop record may have a Hard Bop song that may or not be hard enough to qualify as, well, actually Hard Bop. All I really know is that I do sort of like to say the word “Bebop” much more than “Hard Bop.” And I do remember that Jazz Guy said Miles Davis may or may not have had something to do with all of this.
In all fairness, I had the very same problem with my mathematical friend, Sally Setter (a very real and very cool name!). She wants to organize her entire music collection via genre. I told her this is impossible. After all, where do the great Richard Thompson and the elusive Neil Young belong? But Sally compared the whole thing to some complex calculus problem, where apparently, the goal is to measure infinity which is impossible, as is quite frankly, her musical genre organization idea. For example, she clocks the folk minutes against the rock minutes of a specific album, and the majority determines the album’s genre. Therefore, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush is folk; his Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is rock. Oh, by the way, Sally recently told me that she was really bothered because she couldn’t figure where she had shelved Richard Thompson’s classic Henry the Human Fly. So in all fairness, I don’t think the system works very well. As I said, it all gets confusing.
But truly (and thankfully), Arbouretum’s new album, Song of the Rose, simplifies the discussion. Allow me to give a “ballpark figure” that really is a ballpark figure. This album is like a front row seat in any stadium hosting Richard Thompson and Neil Young who are playing together and trading lead guitar lines and vocals. Now, to be specific, we are talking about Richard Thompson circa the live recordings of “Calvary Cross” and “Night Comes In” from the (guitar, vocal) compilation and Neil Young circa “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Danger Bird.” It’s all very simple, just like rock music should be simple. Actually, the first song, “Call Upon the Fire,” made me think of the band Wolf People (a great group!) with whom a common heritage is shared. Then the song turns into a heavy and extremely blissful Crazy Horse guitar drama, with a somewhat higher-pitched Richard Thompson vocal. “Comanche Moon” is next, a song not dissimilar from the best of Neil Young’s canon, with a Richard Thompson guitar solo. At about the five minute mark, the music ventures into serious Fairport “Sloth” territory.
But really, this isn’t just a mere copy. Good stuff never is. I think my friend, Kilda Defnut, who has her own theology which is loosely based on dogs, books, and music, said it best in her Sacred Maxim XX: “Originality always avoids plagiarism, but not by much.” No, this is four-square heavy guitar rock that has a life, or several lives, all to its own, even if it’s “not by much.”
The title track, “Song of the Rose," is deep folk music amped up into our modern world. And, let’s face it: the best of rock music is simply fueled by the wisdom of tradition. “Absolution Song” has a chord progression that sounds, at least to me, like a slower cousin of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” although the subject matter is much more about the hope that “I wash my clothes in a holy river,” and it’s all set within some sort of ancient Eastern ambiance.
As I have admitted in other reviews, I reserve every Sunday night to make various “best of” album lists. One such list is called “good records that have a subtle mystical bent to them.” I can’t say too much for this album as I don’t have a lyric sheet yet, but the before-mentioned “Absolution Song” and the general tone of the songs, especially the brief instrumental, “Mind Awake, Body Asleep,” bode well for the album’s future prospects. However, their last one, Coming Out of the Fog, is always on my list because of the song “Renouncer” which chooses as its subject matter none other than Saint Simeon Stylites; and as all the history buffs of the 5th Century A.D. will certainly know, he was the holy geezer who renounced the material world, pledged a life of austerity, and became a hermit by living, for thirty-seven years, on top of a stone pillar that was located just north of Aleppo (yes, that Aleppo) in present day Syria (yes, that Syria). Apparently, to (almost) quote The Sex Pistols, this Saint Simeon guy did really “mean it, man!” Now, “Renouncer” doesn’t exactly adhere to the usual rock ‘n’ roll ethos of, say, “Slow Ride” by those British boogie-meisters Foghat, but it is enough to propel the album into the high ranks of my “good albums that have a subtle mystical bent to them” list. It’s also fair to say that not a single record by Foghat (who were never really known for their use of “subtle mysticism”) ever came close to the same honor. By the way, in case you are interested, Jethro Tull’s Passion Play consistently resides on the very top of, for want of a better word, the pillar of my Sunday list. Yes, indeed, Dave Heumann’s lyrics are worth a second look, and then, perhaps, some serious contemplation.
The later songs really create a strong finish for the record. “Dirt Trails” is perhaps the most beautiful tune on the album. With the quiet use of organ, it becomes atmospheric and does, indeed, change the tone of the record. It’s clear that Arbouretum is a rock band that exists quite well in its own universe. “Fall from an Eyrie” follows, and with its ascending and powerful vocal, is a song that proves, despite all the heavy guitar solos, this band can produce dramatic and highly melodic music that serves as a necessary counterpoint to the intense depth of the rest of the album. Again, this song manages to evoke the sad mysticism of some lonely place that pervades all of this music.
The album ends with an almost acoustic song, “Woke Up on the Move.” But then the guitars return to control what is left of the room on the record. A good album should end with a little drama. This is their album, and this is their heavy farewell. They have made it their way; and, yes, I have seriously enjoyed the intensity of its slow-burning rock ‘n’ roll fire. File this one under the label, “really good rock music,” alongside the entire Richard Thompson and Neil Young catalog, so it will never get lost.