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Song Of The Pearl Frances Morgan , March 10th, 2009 12:55

Sometimes a song follows you around without your permission. In the same week, a conversation with a friend put me back onto Sandy Denny’s poignant, confused Sandy album, and a liking for Arbouretum’s 2007 release Rites Of Uncovering led me to the Baltimore quartet’s Song Of The Pearl; and there, on both, was Bob Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’.

The two, very different, versions – Arbouretum’s sombre and resigned, Denny’s buoyantly twangy – connect only in the bones of the song’s structure, in the folk-like chorus in which the notes descend like bookends. But the coincidence meant that, for a time there, ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ became something more than itself, the way a song can when it’s cut loose from its moorings – its author, perhaps – and achieves a kind of universality via its readiness to travel through time and land up with you in a seemingly perfect match.

The title track of Song Of The Pearl isn’t a cover or a traditional, yet it feels like one of those songs too, and its achievement reflects well upon guitarist/vocalist David Heumann’s growing confidence in crafting unostentatious but ruggedly magical music. ‘Song Of The Pearl’ shines out from the middle of the album, lambent like the titular jewel. Its warm string arrangement and wistful major-chord melody give nods to the lush 1960s folk-pop found on Tim Buckley’s debut album or Buffalo Springfield doing ‘On The Way Home’ on Last Time Around, but these touches are self-aware, not self-conscious. Heumann’s vocal is careful, understated – he sings as if in the song’s service, as if in acknowledgement that it’s bigger than him, that it be should flying free into a collective imagination.

That Arbouretum surround this baroque centrepiece with seven tracks in which lustre is tinged with grit and soft strings are eschewed in favour of growling guitars is to their credit – a whole album of such stylistic confections would belie the strength of the band’s own, distinctive voice. Like fellow Marylanders Lungfish (whose drummer Mitchell Feldstein has played on past recordings and whose bassist Nathan Bell partners Heumann in Human Bell), Arbouretum’s take on the US psychedelic folk/rock tradition is robust and rhythmically sound, with its roots in hardcore and post-rock. The ascetic, tough grooves of ‘Thin Dominion’ and ‘Another Hiding Place’ indicate an obvious link between the two bands, but where Lungfish’s mystical and metaphysical concerns were voiced mainly in Daniel Higgs’ lyrics and vocal, Arbouretum use arrangement and production to similar effect. While there’s nothing on Song Of The Pearl as rampantly psychedelic as Rites Of Uncovering’s epic ‘The Rise’, a gently disorienting haze hangs heavy over the ‘Down By The Fall Line’, as the guitars of Heumann and Steve Strohmeier ripple around a vocal theme that recalls a folk lament or Sacred Harp hymn. A drone is hinted at, but never actualised; the song drifts into vapour trails of feedback and falling-apart, cyclical melody.

Song Of The Pearl may appear to lack some of the conviction of its predecessor: it certainly veers away from Rites Of Uncovering’s darker aspects. Its modest demeanour might place it on many a back burner in favour of the more direct, iconic hit of the new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album, say. But Arbouretum are songwriters for those who shy away from the centrality and ego of singer-songwriter figures, who choose, instead, to marvel at the secret life of the song itself and to seek out the spark at its core; and this is a record you’ll save for an easy listen on a dark day, and – moved and illuminated – suddenly discover that it is nothing of the sort.