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The Ivytree - Winged Leaves

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Artist: The Ivytree

Album: Winged Leaves

Label: Catsup Plate

Review date: Sep. 16, 2004


San Francisco's Jewelled Antler Collective are one of today's most creative and enigmatic functioning groups. They're also one of the most prodigious, too, wrapping themselves around an array of field recordings, subtle improvisation, sparse folk, and good old fashioned drone based psychedelia that encompasses projects as far-reaching as Thuja (the Collective's founding flagship after the dissolution of venerable space-rockers Mirza), the Blithe Sons, the Skygreen Leopards and a ton more that have seen release on various labels and their own in-house CD-R imprint. And although Loren Chasse edges out as the most proficient member of the bunch, Glenn Donaldson (who does time in all of the projects mentioned) is right there behind him. The Ivytree's Winged Leaves represents his second foray into solo territory, after the Birdtree's 2003 disc Orchards & Caravans, and the first to see wider distribution and "conventional" pressing courtesy of Catsup Plate Records (although its beautiful cardboard sleeve and collage artwork are far from de rigueur).

As with many of the other Jewelled Antler releases, Donaldson manages to take simplistic recording techniques and equipment and extend them far beyond what they should be capable of. While some of the music here was tracked indoors at his house, a lot of it was captured outside namely in Big Sur and the Marin Headlands in the Bay area on the West Coast. To some a mention of this may sound either as a quaint notion or evidence of lacking material. In actuality the way the sounds on this record were captured go a long way towards adding depth and variation to Donaldson's sparse musings.

Operating more as an album then as a collection of songs, Winged Leaves begins to take the shape of a sun-soaked sound walk from the front door of Donaldson's house, to deep in the woods and back again, with inviting strums and foreboding echoes coloring the footsteps. The opening hum of "Flood" parts to reveal "The Book of Job." Whereas the former directly references the work of Thuja, the latter, with its elegiac finger picking and organ lines cushioning Donaldson's timidly arching falsetto, reveals song form on par with the wonderful Skygreen Leopards album released earlier this year. Much of the record proceeds in this fashion, issuing sublime snapshots of brief moments in sound.

But as the record progresses, things take a darker turn. An ominous bowed string shadows the vocal and guitar lines on "Emerald Green, Peacock Blue," which then gives itself over to the claustrophobic din of "Longleaf Pines." The record crests on "Churches," a lilting folk tune cascading off its surroundings toward subtle overtone that is a marvel of natural ambience. Vocally, Donaldson isn't aiming for communication as much as another layer, using his voice to counterpoint and balance his arrangements. His words may not be significant, but they are still an integral part of each piece.

While the performances contained on Winged Leaves are uniformly great, its Donaldson's surroundings and his ability to capture them aurally that makes this such an appealing record. In lesser hands, music such as this could devolve into a forlorn, lo-fidelity nightmare, but Glenn Donaldson displays a true master's touch with his work. Modern songs can exist almost anywhere and at almost any time, and yet the Ivytree's music seems to stem from such specific places and dates that one can't help but be carried there, with birdsong and reverberation of the flora aiding the way. While there are songs on this record, Winged Leaves is not an outward showcase for them. Rather, it's Donaldson's sly invitation to join him in the parks and on the trails that make up his studio and rehearsal space. It's a trip I highly recommend taking.

By Michael Crumsho

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