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Album Review

ARBOREA
House of Sticks

House of Sticks! Of course! Sometimes I'm as dense as heavy water. The Three Little Pigs! Get it? “House of sticks or house of straw...”--- “Three long days till the coming of the sun...” leading into ominous drone and eerie plucking of stringed instruments and if not a sense of foreboding, a sense of otherworldliness. Three pigs trapped on a beach in Viet Nam, the wolf coming towards them in long strides, cigar dangling from long snout--- “Gawd, I love the smell of ham in the morning...”

While I am sure this was not the intention of Arborea when they recorded the title track, my own insecurities trump intention and raise them three lumpy throats and six knocking knees as the pigs enter the nightmarish hell of foot long fangs dripping corrosive saliva and the smell of putrid cigar, facing certain death. “House of sticks or...”

Of course, House of Sticks the album is hardly that easy. Shanti and Buck Curran do not write cartoon music nor do they deal in the superficial. They deal in something much more substantial--- life. Their lives are not our lives--- at least most of our lives. While we concern ourselves with flip book pages of news and politics and daily concerns, they live. I have visions of a backwoods cabin with minimal use of electricity, a fireplace, a one lane gravel road the only approach besides a few footpaths branching out in various directions. There is a front porch and natural wood (real natural wood, roughcut, and not the fancy milled wood we see at the big box home improvement stores), a few framed windows (picture windows are for the flip bookers) and cooking over a wood stove. I know that I set myself up for a fool, but this is the picture I have of Maine and is only partially due to the publicity surrounding this release.

House of Sticks is a continuation of the musical journey of Shanti and Buck Curran,” it states, “as they conjure scenes of the wilderness and dwelling, and the vibrant people who exist within them. Partly recorded in a Depression Era hunting cabin nestled in the olden hills of western Maine, one can nearly hear the creaking floorboards and smell the wood smoke in the cold night air...” The music most of the time reflects that scene. Shanti's minimal plucking of banjo and siren voice are light brush strokes over Buck's futuristic (in that setting) electric guitar and perfect companion to his acoustic instrumentation. They are sometimes surreal and at others bordering on Third World. When asked about possible Middle Eastern or Far Eastern influences, Buck wrote “Definitely a mix of old blues, Indian, British folk-rock (June Tabor, Sandy Denny, Pentangle).  Lots of things that have been cookin' in the pot for a very long time...but then brought to life musically through our life experience together, here in Maine and elsewhere.  The Maine landscape is a huge inspiration to us.” And yet I can't get that “Eastern” sound out of my head.

It is not intensely Eastern, mind you. As stated before, there are light brush strokes, but they are strokes of moment. Again, from the publicity sheet: “With Shanti's unique rhythmic and melodic banjo style, and the introduction of her harmonium along with Buck's haunting slide guitar, the duo creates an atmosphere of primitive 'Paris, Texas' Americana meets 'modal visions of the Far East.'” I might have substituted the ghosts of Appalachia for those of Paris, Texas (obviously a reference to the Ry Cooder project), but the idea is the same. Superimpose late 60s and early 70s modern folk, the real modern folk and not that twisted into palatable rock form, and you pretty much have Arborea, except you don't.

From the beginning, they push the boundaries outward. River and Rapids flows over bedrock of sparse banjo, a chant of water flow supported toward the end by rhythms of the past/present. It sets the pace. It sets the feel. Following it up with Beirut, modern folk of the present, they solidify the pace. But wait.

I know it's only me, but for eight or so measures, the ghost of Harry Nilsson is revived in the opening notes of Arborea's excellent Alligator. As the acoustic guitar settles into light rhythm, I start singing “You put the lime in the coconut” before Shanti takes me on a side trip in an elevator to the third floor and Buck's Jorme Kaukonen-like heavily reverbed acoustic guitar gives me Jefferson Airplane whiplash. So taken by the sound, I sat through repeated listenings looking for meaning only to find that it is what it is, written for feel and rhythm probably as much as meaning. It doesn't matter much, though, because “they're like alligators, like alligators, like alligators....” floats through my head and like putting lime in the coconuts, makes me feel good.

Dance, Sing, Fight puts me in mind of Tom Mank and Sera Jane Smolen's outstanding rundown of the Baltimore race riots of the 60s, Keep Crossing That Line, except that it looks to the future instead of the past and sounds completely different. There is similar fabric in each, though, nebulous though it may be to some. Perhaps it is the humanity or lack thereof in (ironically) humans which floats through the music. Sometimes word definitions elude me, no more so than attaching 'humane' to 'human'. At times, we as a species are hardly that to which we (and Webster) so boldly claim.

But I digress. The very cerebral Look Down Fair Moon, slow and meditative, follows, instruments plucked and cajoled in Third World mode, making way for House of Sticks, the song. The lead-in is pure child song... “House of stick or house of straw...” until sliding and bent strings over droning harmonium takes us into the woods, as it were, and not the beautiful woods of Maine but the woods of Hansel and Gretel, dark and mysterious and with that smell of fear to which I referred earlier. Buck works a bit of sand into our conscience with guitar and amp and finally gives way to...

My take, of course, and in the spirit of fairness, Buck corrected me on one thing. “Shanti sings 'House of Sticks 'Oh' House of Straw',” he explains. “That song came out of one of Shanti's abstract poems (almost like an American Haiku) about the fragility of life.” In an aside, he points out that “the music underneath her singing is a music box playing Home On the Range, but the recording was then played in reverse to accompany her verses. My acoustic slide and electric guitar parts were sort of a response to the music and vocals she started the song with.” Proof that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (on my part) and that the creative process occasionally takes strange paths (on theirs).

Onto the Shore, a song possibly constructed around the ancient folk sound of either the UK or Japan, or maybe both. Softer, smoother, the harsh guitar gives way to beautiful, floating sounds. A relief which fades slowly out, replaced with the slow fade-in of ambient sounds and a soft layer of harmonium and guitar and the siren voice of Shanti. Call it meditative, call it haunting, call it what you will, it is a call from the past, a lament for what once was and is maybe no more. Or not. Whatever it is, it is beauteous.

If you've not heard of Arborea, it is certainly not the fault of the media. They have been featured on NPR and written about in The WIRE, Boston Globe, and Dirty Linen, among others, and are gaining a name for their approach to music. After hearing this, you can't help but wonder what the future holds for them. Perhaps it will be fame and fortune. More than likely, though, it will be a continuing oneness with the Great Spirits with which we live. And, musically, more steps into the void toward which most do not venture. We can only hope.

Post Script: The picture at the top of the page is titled “Dark Storm” and is a creation of Shanti Curran. The video of River and Rapids pertains to the current album, but the one for Black Mountain Road relates to an earlier album, Arborea. All albums are available from CDBaby.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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