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Arbouretum / Pontiak - Kale

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Artist: Arbouretum / Pontiak

Album: Kale

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jul. 21, 2008

Two guitar-heavy bands of distinctly different lineage – Arbouretum along the axis of Neil Young and Palace Brothers, Pontiak more in the line of Kyuss and Dead Meadow – share this split. The fact that both bands cover John Cale songs provides some degree of unity, but not much. The two halves are completely separate experiences.

Arbouretum, one of last year's best surprises, starts the thing off, unfolding "Time Will Tell" with a slow, ruminative patience. Lyrics are soft, widely spaced, framed by (almost) audible thought as they trace out sparse images, a stormy natural landscape, a beautiful woman. Dave Heumann gives them both equal weight and power. The woman in the second verse – "her hair in coils her shoulder soft and bare / In her eyes, a firelight roars and dims" – is nearly as ominous as the clouds building in the first. Human beings are just as much a force of nature as trees and winds in Heumann's songs, and as the guitar escapes its bonds near the 3:30 mark, a prolonged solo brings that anarchic, wind-torn aesthetic to life. It starts with a winding, unspooling series of notes, bass and guitar wrapped in serpentine coils around each other. Then Heumann's guitar heads off into unknown territories, wailing and spinning in intractable circles, as if unwilling to fit into the strictures attached to song but unable to fully escape them. It's quite a long guitar solo, struggling on mightily over its six-minute duration to find some reconciliation between structure and pure emotional abandon. You keep expecting it to circle back to the initial musical idea, but it crashes to a halt without ever revisiting the verse or chorus.

This conflict between civilization and self-expression, orderly existence and the natural world, extends to Arbouretum's choice of Cale covers. They opt for "Buffalo Ballet," off the Paris 1919 album. The song is, on its surface, about the lost natural West, the encroachment of towns on its vast spaces. The most obvious difference between the original and the cover is that Cale accompanies himself on piano, whereas Heumann plays guitar. And yet, it seems like more than a casual choice of arrangements when you listen to the two versions together. Cale's piano is steady, full of rectitude, implying country churches and school assemblies, all the accoutrements of elementary civilization in the wild. You might read Cale’s version as a mournful celebration of all this frontier fortitude, the unlikely presence of an upright piano at the edge of civilization. Heumann's guitar backing is, by contrast, ghostly and elegiac, evoking empty main streets and the relics of erstwhile prosperity. It is not just the buffalos who are gone in this second version, but the men who hunted them and all they held dear. Everything seems to have gone wild again in their wake.

Pontiak, out of Virginia, takes up the second half of the disc. Their "Dome Under the Sky,” begins in viscous, vaguely Sabbath-like bends and slides, churning out a repetitive, circling riff that turns darker and more distorted than anything on the Arbouretum side. This song, very much in line with the Sun On Sun debut which Thrill Jockey is re-releasing in September, crests in a massed, monolithic choruses, with everyone singing in unison, drums clattering and rampaging in the intervals. It is simpler than the Arbouretum material, but weighty and powerful. Two more John Cale covers provide some variety: "Endless Plain of Fortune" with its slow-mo slides and codeine-paced cymbals, and the odd, light-hearted "Mr. Wilson," Cale's tribute to the Beach Boys' founder. Both allow the band to stretch well beyond its desert rock, stoner-drone home territories, working from a lighter-toned palette.

This split disc is a fine introduction to two very different bands who share a love of guitars, slow tempos and John Cale … but, apparently, not much else. There's a bit of a chasm to jump when the last strains of Arbouretum's "The Flood" drift off, and the dark distorted opening of "Dome Under the Sky" begins, but if you get a running start you'll clear it easily.

By Jennifer Kelly

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