Arbouretum review

For the Records #2: Newer Bands, Older Listeners

Born in 1958, I well remember the days of my early record-buying youth, looking up to my rock and roll heroes. The guys in the Beatles, Stones, Credence and the Who were all first wave baby-boomers, coming into this life during or just after World War II. The band members of the punk/New Wave groups I followed enthusiastically and so identified with were my contemporaries. Even though great music is timeless, the age factor is an important variable when it comes to musical appreciation.

So what happens to aging rock ‘n’ rollers when, like me, you are approaching Social security age? For many years, what I would call “Instagram Pop” has dominated mainstream charts, my main exposure to it being the endless parade of forgettable, dance-heavy one-hit wonders that tend to show up as the musical act each week on “Saturday Night Live.”

You can always dial into a classic-rock station or listen to the old favorites in your collection. But how does one satisfy a lifelong urge for new musical discoveries? Well, in this age of the Internet and streaming, access to newer acts that carry high the torch of Rock music is easier than ever. Here are several of my more recent finds. Keep in mind that the word “newer” is relative for an old geezer like me. The criteria I used is that the band in question had to have dropped their first album in 1990 or later.

Apricity—Syd Arthur (2016)

In the Seventies, the “Canterbury Scene” was a vital musical hotspot—this ancient English cathedral city was home to bands like the Soft Machine, Caravan, Gong and Matching Mole. In 2003, a talented young band named Syd Arthur (pronounced like the Herman Hesse novel but also a tribute to rock iconoclasts Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee) emerged from the same town. The pedigree was not unnoticed: Soft Machine co-founder Hugh Hopper offered the group advice (and one of his bass guitars) and Paul Weller was an early fan.

Syd Arthur fit loosely inside the wider neo-prog rock genre. On their albums their songs are propulsive and airy, with thoughtful lyrics and unfussy but expert musicianship. They are led by singer-guitarist Liam Magill and his bass-playing brother Joel, on keyboards and violin is Raven Bush (nephew of Kate). This is (was?) a great band, the only thing I would say is that their records leaned heavily on tightly arranged 4-minute songs that had a certain sameness of approach. That is why I prefer their fourth (and to date, last) album, Apricity. The formula is loosened up with various intros and outros and it’s a strong batch of songs. I especially like the closing title track (“Apricity” means the warmth of the sun that can still be felt on a cold day).

I saw Syd Arthur open for Yes in 2014 and was surprised and impressed how they delved into ambient psychedelic instrumental passages along with their more conventional songs. Although they have been inactive since 2017, here’s hoping for a reunion and maybe a willingness to explore this intriguing experimental side of their sound.

Let It All In—Arbouretum (2022)

The Baltimore-based group Arbouretum have been releasing excellent music since 2002 but have only attained a regional/cult following. Led by the enigmatic singer-writer-guitarist Dave Heumann, they have gotten some wider recognition, mainly for 2011’s The Gathering, which made the best-of-year lists of the UK’s two standard-bearing rock magazines, MOJO and Uncut. That album concludes with the brooding ten-minute-plus “Song of the Nile” which sprouts a glorious fuzz-drenched solo by Heumann, a not uncommon point of attack for him.

Arbouretum were more-or-less on my radar for years, via YouTube clips or the odd compilation track, but I finally ponied up and bought their latest (and tenth) album off their website. Let It All In is a strange beauty of an album. The heightened naturalism of Heumann’s cryptic song scenarios gives the whole album a hauntological vibe—he even name drops Telesphorus, the child-god of healing. Heumann’s voice seems to inhabit his own folklore, a few songs here sound like Gordon Lightfoot with Tom Verlaine on guitar. In their more hard-driving moments (the locomotive 12-minute title cut) their momentum is unstoppable, as is the saw-tooth lead guitar and the terse self-actualization that informs much of Heumann’s compelling lyrics: “Polestar don’t know where you are, only where you are drawn/Headwinds turn tail, hard to fail if you know where to begin.”

Alvvays (2014)

Alvvays (pronounced “always”) have put Canadian indie rock squarely on the map since releasing their self-titled debut in 2014. They hail from Atlantic Canada (formerly known as The Maritimes) but have re-located to Toronto. They are fronted by Molly Rankin, progeny of the Rankin Family, Nova Scotia’s first family of Cape Breton-style Celtic music.

That first album opened with a great one-two punch. The attention-grabbing opener “Adult Diversion” is followed by the ironic twee-pop plea “Archie, Marry Me” that, with its earworm chorus, became a cult hit. The aloof charms of the photogenic Rankin inform every song, her vocals are invariably both yearning and wised-up. Alvvays’ other two long-players, Antisocialites (from 2017) and Blue Rev (2022), are also excellent. Highlights include “Dreams Tonite” from the former and “Tom Verlaine” from the latter. The first is accompanied by a gratifying video that digitally inserts band members into the crowd at the Expo ’67 in Montreal (I was there as a 9 year-old but those guys hadn’t been born yet).

The second is not necessarily about the legendary Television frontman who passed away three months after the album’s release. Instead, Molly assures a Delphian boyfriend, “you’ll always be my Tom Verlaine.” Hipsters of the past and present will know exactly what she means.

England is a Garden—Cornershop (2020)

A big sunny musical highlight of the grim Covid year of 2020 was England is a Garden by the British indie-rockers Cornershop. The band, fronted by Tjinger Singh and Ben Ayres, was formed in Leicester in the mid-90s. In 1998 they had a #1 UK single with “Brimful of Asha,” a bouncy and delightful tribute to an Indian singer featuring the immortal tag line, “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow.”

However, Cornershop may be too quirky overall for sustained commercial success. It’s not the fault of the music: England is a Garden is a non-stop infectious mix of strumming guitars, flutes, tambouras and percussion, playing infectious rhythms under appealing melodies. But at times it is a bit hard to suss out what these lads are on about. (The CD comes with a fold-out poster that could have been better utilized as a lyric sheet). So while I may never understand “St. Marie Under Canon” or the tale of the “Uncareful Lady Owner,” they are still fun listens.

But when all their pistons are firing, this is some of the most enjoyable music I’ve heard in years. In time-tested form they celebrate their subculture and bemoan authority’s failure to appreciate it in “Everywhere the Wog Army Roam” (“policeman follow them”). In the chipper “Highly Amplified” they acknowledge that “hell is deep and the world is sinking” but refuse to give in to despair if there’s another rave to be had.

England is a Garden also features a pretty instrumental interlude (the title track), a radiant sing-along cover of a tune from a Seventies Hare Krishna pop album and two tracks that fall into the band’s long line of T. Rex/Sweet homages, one of which (“No Rock: Save in Roll”) pays clever tribute to the big role their native West Midlands area played in the development of hard rock.

Take Care, Take Care, Take Care—Explosions in the Sky (2011)

Explosions in the Sky are an all-instrumental “post-rock” band from Austin. They have released seven studio albums since 2000 and a few soundtracks as well, including one for the film version of “Friday Night Lights” about high-school football culture in their native Texas. Even their non-soundtrack work sounds like the compelling incidental music for the cinema of the mind. The music ebbs and flows and cascades, and often builds up to magnificent guitar crescendos.

The music of EITS can certainly be cathartic and their live shows come highly recommended though they’ve not been around my way that I know of. Like their other albums, 2011’s Take Care is great “listening listening” for those who have the time. Yet I can’t but help feel there’s a little something missing: yup, it’s the lack of vocals. The reflective folk-rock opening of a song like “Human Qualities” just cries out for an opening verse. While the group refer to their music as “mini-symphonies” there’s not enough variety in the arrangements to really make that stick. Still, at their evocative best (like in “Postcard from 1952” posted above), there’s something quite enchanting about EITS that made me glad I did get around to checking them out.

English Electric, Part Two—Big Big Train (2013)

Big Big Train are one of the more high profile bands of recent decades that inhabit the multi-variate world of neo-prog rock.. They formed in 1990 in the city of Bournemouth on England’s southern coast, and have released 14 studio albums and a clutch of EPs and live sets. Their overall sound falls somewhere between the late Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (Selling England by the Pound) and the early post-Gabriel Genesis (Trick of the Tail, The Wind and the Wuthering). Admittedly, that’s a narrow window so you can probably hear their sound in advance.

BBT have long resembled a collective more than a fixed group; on their records as many as seven or eight musicians are used per song, according to the sonics needed. These are some lush audio landscapes. The album I bought was English Electric Part Two (though Part One is also good) and the combination of the songwriting of founding member (and bassist/keyboardist) Greg Lawton with vocalist David Longdon was a creative peak (at the time, ex-XTC man Dave Gregory was on lead guitar. Longdon died in 2021, aged 56).

This music is unabashedly pastoral and nostalgic, with longish well-arranged  songs that extol the virtues of farmers and shipyard workers and railroad engineers etc. These multi-sectional pieces with their florid piano, flutes and guitar crescendos will be too precious for some. Titles like “Curator of Butterflies”  and “Swan Hunter” may even be a deal-breaker for some. But people like me who were weaned on the classic prog-rock sounds of Yes, Moody Blues and, yep, Genesis, will likely be intrigued. 

This is a partial list, and I didn’t included bands that I followed more closely (like the Decemberists or British Sea Power) or those that I want to find out more about, like last year’s indie darlings from the Isle of Wight, Wet Leg. Everyone remembers “Chaise Lounge,” their buttered-muffin breakout hit, but I like this best of the follow-up singles, with the girls cavorting on the headlands of their home island. Til next that next time…