A violin and a cello enter. After supplying a bittersweet melody, they give way to a pair of voices and an acoustic guitar. The woman quiets and the man is left to sing, “My mom’s asking where I’ve hid the knives / Well, what do you want them for? / The answer’s in her eyes / I don’t want her to hurt anymore.” This moment, from “We Burn the Leaves” off of 2010’s All Alone In An Empty House, perfectly captures the essence of Lost In The Trees. The project is all at once a seven-piece folk orchestra and a haunting diary of its mastermind, Ari Picker. His inspiration for All Alone came primarily from his tumultuous childhood; growing up, he endured the emotional toll of a messy divorce and his mother’s struggles with depression and cancer.
Since the release of All Alone In An Empty House, more tragedy has come about for Picker – his mother took her own life following his wedding. A Church That Fits Our Needs, the North Carolina group’s sophomore LP, serves as both a tribute to her life and a lamentation of her death. In a promo video for the album, Picker says that the songs attempt to “create a space for her soul,” surely a concept that inspires the title. He forms that space for his mother by writing her story into the album.
It always remains evident that this record is a deeply personal one; the words can be difficult to unpack and decipher at points, as if they were only meant to be understood between Picker and his mother. Yet, although the narrative unfolds in a blurry manner, the emotion is palpable in the verses and their delivery. On “Villain (I’ll Stick Around),” Picker observes his mother’s haunting presence in a delicate falsetto, noting “a golden angel is floating past / Past my mirror / She’s neither here or there.” He exalts her as a heavenly figure over much of the album, but his exaltation induces powerful images instead of sounding over-the-top. Indeed, what separates him from most other songwriters is his ability to write poetically while sounding honest and unassuming. He channels his mother’s ghost in many of these songs, as he admits on “Vines:” “It was so glorious, was so glorious / She came down and put her song into my mouth.” Raw inspiration is the driving force of this album, and the lyrics are astounding as a result.
The band is in top form on this album, providing a gorgeous score to the mournful words. This time around, the arrangements are more intricate, more moody, and more dynamic. For instance, the first half of “This Dead Bird Is Beautiful” is little more than an acoustic guitar and a sighing voice, but it morphs into an explosive coda soon after Picker realizes that he’ll always have his mother’s eyes. A turbulent string melody and an operatic howl rattle in the mix, only to drop into an eerily quiet outro shortly thereafter. There are so many enticing shifts like this one that keep the music fluid, unpredictable, and engaging throughout the album. A rhythmic piano and drum breakdown interrupts the orchestral swell of “Tall Ceilings.” The floor falls out around halfway through “Red,” and the strings bring the song into an unsettling place before the original motif returns. Each movement is arranged with a grace and finesse that is almost unparalleled among the group’s contemporaries. For this very reason, A Church That Fits Our Needs is one of the more original and compelling listens that you’ll hear in 2012.
From the first time I listened (at six in the morning, sprawled on my bed, wondering why I was still awake), until just now (when I stopped writing to hear it again), I’ve consistently found very little wrong with A Church That Fits Our Needs. With some rather long tracks and some dense emotions that are packed into this album, it’s definitely a taxing listen. But it’s also one of the most cohesive and powerful records to come around in a long time, and it doesn’t tire after multiple spins. Lost In The Trees has constructed a beautiful memorial for the soul of Ari Picker’s mother to rest in.