Live, Lost in the Trees' name is easy to rationalize. The deliberate and dramatic Chapel Hill sextet creates a dizzying tangle of guitars, strings and horns, swirling and refracting like the light that filters through a stand of Carolina pines. It's dense and beautiful, a sound you can easily get lost in.
Luckily for the band, frontman Ari Picker's performances don't get lost in all that musical complexity. Instead, they resound with emotional honesty. His presence is so powerful that it would be off-putting were it not for his lush lyrical imagery and the band's buoyant instrumental swells. Bedecked in khakis and a selection of colorful dress shirts, he picks his guitar and wields a croon so soft it borders on a whisper. His voice quavering, he often looks down and away, appearing as if on the brink of a breakdown. When the music crescendos, his emotions follow suit. He strums hard and screams, closed-eyed toward the heavens.
Picker's songs are potent and personal, but he confesses that they are not the primary force behind his transfixing stage presence. "Maybe it's just me being nervous and playing in front of people, and that excitement, and playing with my friends, and live music, and just the energy behind that," Picker says, speaking loudly to be heard over his chatting bandmates.
The members of Lost in the Trees are crammed into their van, returning South from a benefit show in New York City. The band is scheduled to play at the Visulite Theatre on June 28.
"It's just that I'm not necessarily reliving all the emotions that the songs encompass every time I sing them. I don't think so," Picker continues. "The live-music world is so different than the songwriting and record-making world, or at least it is for me. The songs kind of exist in different ways."
It's probably a good thing Picker doesn't always revisit the moments captured in his mostly biographical narratives. Lost in the Trees' two most recent albums — All Alone in an Empty House (released in 2008 and reissued in an expanded version by indie giant ANTI- in 2010) and A Church That Fits Our Needs, released this year — furrow into the fraught and fractured history of Picker's family. Empty House explores the relationship between his emotionally abusive father and his chronically depressed mother, an ultimately doomed union further fractured by the premature births and subsequent deaths of Picker's older twin sisters.
Picker's mother, Karen Shelton, killed herself in 2009 upon returning home from his wedding. He speculates that his mother's stress of interacting with his father and keeping up a good face brought back old feelings that were too distressing for her to cope with. Many people might resent a parent for such an incident — their special day forever tainted by incredible tragedy. But Picker is proud of his mother, and A Church is proof. The album is painted in dark hues, but is ultimately a celebration of his mother's life lifted by visions of the glory he hopes she will find in the afterlife.
"I was very concerned that people would assume," Picker says, referring to what others might think of his mother. On the album he defends her frequently — "Don't you dare/ Think she was weak-hearted!" he cries on "Icy River," a sentiment he echoes on the standout ballad "This Dead Bird is Beautiful."
"I wanted people to focus on the amazing things that she had done," he continues. "I didn't want people to think that I was angry at her. And I didn't want anybody to think that she was a weak person. That's where those lyrics come from. Her body might be gone, but all that's left is this glorious being."
Despite Picker's uplifting intentions, A Church gains some of its greatest impact from the darker details of his mom's life. "Neither Here Nor There," for instance, delves into the downfall of Shelton's Carrboro art career. "I owned an art gallery/ 'Till you stole it from me," Picker sings rom her perspective over a herky-jerk combo of lo-fi polyrhythms and sparkling operatic flourishes. "My son will throw stones/ And shatter all your windows."
Picker alleges his mother was forced out by the gallery's current owners, separating her from her art and plunging her deeper into an existence that was both lonely and unrewarding. Her life was dominated by such unfortunate events. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when Picker was a boy. She survived, but was left with scars that shattered her self-esteem and kept her from pursuing romantic relationships.
At times, the despair on A Church can be almost overwhelming. On "Icy River" Picker recounts the disposal of his mother's remains: "Icy River/ Put your arms around my mother/ I burned her body in the furnace/ 'Till all that was left was her glory." He borrowed the metaphor "This Dead Bird is Beautiful" from the way the police described her on the night of her death.
"I guess it's just the way my brain works," Picker says of his ability to transform personal trauma into a gripping song. "As soon as I found out, my brain started thinking about the record. I guess that's the way music's always been. Here's a huge emotional tsunami, and just immediately, I'm like, 'How can I tell this story? How can I make a piece of art out of it?'"
On A Church, the grim moments serve to make Shelton's experiences more impressive. "You walked/ Through this horrid life," Picker sings on "An Artist's Song," "But you got to sing/ Before you closed your eyes." The track begins as a bare acoustic ballad bolstered by tinkling piano, but it soon swells into the brightest and biggest orchestral arrangement on the album, lending a hopeful air to Picker's central plea — "So sing out/ Your hymn of faith 'cause I have none/ Your song is my armor."
Picker's compositions are most effective when they throw light and dark into stark contrast. "This Dead Bird is Beautiful" starts out as a brittle acoustic song, with Picker strumming and singing without accompaniment: "I'll carry her. Because she breathed I breathe." Near the end, ominous strings and tuba rush in with furious foreboding as far-off voices howl like torrential winds. Picker stands defiantly against the onslaught, forcefully declaring, "Hell won't come into my house/ Not when you're around." For Picker, his mother's memory is a source of strength, and she lives on in his actions and in his songs.
"With death, it is abstract," Picker says. "You can't really conceive some of these things: What's Heaven like? Where's my mom's soul? When she died, I kept feeling really strange things. I would feel her presence in a way that was very bizarre. A lot of times it was being in nature or something like that, and I would just have a connection with something I would see. I would feel her and think about having conversations with her. It's certainly not linear. I don't know. It felt right to sing about it that way."
Lost in the Trees with Daytona. June 28. 8:30 p.m. $10/$12. Visulite Theatre. www.visulite.com.
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