Review: Arbor Labor Union – I Hear You

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Thomas Hobbes was responsible for much of the better-or-worse modernity we have inherited, so it is not too much of a stretch to link an offhand observation in Leviathan to a self-consciously backward-looking rock band from twenty-first century Atlanta. “No man can have in his mind a conception of the future,” he wrote, “for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future.” Perhaps this is why the band–whose new Sub Pop release I Hear You sounds like a nineties college band’s interpretation of the psychedelic era, in a good way: like Hum, without the Gen-x introspection, jamming along with dad’s old records–channeled one of Hobbes’s chief interpreters in a recent comment for SPIN“We hold these truths to be self evident,” the quartet maintains, echoing Jefferson: “This is now music of the modern era. No genre revival. If a voice within whispers ‘Listen’ you must respond I Hear You. As did we and will continue to do.”

But that’s enough pretentiousness.**  I Hear You is a solid album, rich with promise for listeners hungry for a return to the stripped-down grit of rock instrumentation without submitting themselves to the staid genre conventions of punk or (too much of) the self-absorption of post-rock or heavier stoner bands. Arbor Labor Union intentionally refuses to break new ground with I Hear You, but that is the point. As much a response to the glimmering sheen of production that characterizes music today as an homage to psychedelia, I Hear You catalogues a yearning for the material over the digital–as in the band’s write-up about conifer trees and the singing ground, see the * below–and promises to reclaim it by eschewing the last twenty to forty years of music history.

Putting aside the question of whether the band’s effort to reclaim the past is relevant to the present, I Hear You comes as close as any record can to delivering on that promise without succumbing to retro kitsch. “Mr. Birdsong” recalls early grunge, but carefully; subsequent tracks “Hello Transmission” and “Radiant Mountain Road” build backward, linking the opener’s grunge sensibility to the less-restrained garage aesthetic of the seventies and late sixties. “I Am You” carries the union of these styles to a logical, if premature, conclusion in the middle of the album. Reminiscent simultaneously of everything since 1967 and nothing at all, “I Am You” underlines the record’s archival warrant in red ink. It works.

After cresting this psychedelic peak, the album drives gently downhill, back toward the present. Four-minute instrumental “Babel” suggests a more focused method beneath the surface and points—I hope—toward the band’s future. “Belief’d,” “Silent Oath,” and other tracks are better than filler, but the idea is already clear after cresting the peak. These tracks shine light on its musical nuances but illuminate its tidy corners, as well. “IHU,” finally, recalls the droning psychedelia of “I Am You.”

And what of the premise? Countless bands have turned to nostalgia—succumbed to what Derrida describes in a radically different context as “archive fever,” a madness for origins—in an attempt to reclaim that which was bold and bright in rock’s past, and, thus, in their own youth.  Arbor Labor Union transcends crass nostalgia on I Hear You by reinterpreting the past for the present. The result is not perfect—repetition and experimentation sometimes derail the individual tracks—but it is remarkably fresh.

** Want more? From the band’s bio page at Sub Pop: “4 Years ago, in the Peach state of Georgia, there was a mighty green Conifer tree whose limbs were wider than the smile on the sun. From this tree hung many a seed. The tree was home to so many creatures big and small. The most fun of them all was perhaps MR. BIRDSONG. Mr. Birdsong was a single white dove…” and so on, including the line: “if you press your ear to the ground you will find that it too has a sound… and it sings.”

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