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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1658

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Big Tree: This New Year
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/4/2011)

With the homogeneity of contemporary commercial pop, it seems to me that there has been a rise in the number of groups whom I suppose could be called "quirky." This sort of thing seems to happen in cycles. Of course, the 1960s psychedelic days were a prime period for groups that did some experimentation, not all of it very successful musically. There was also a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when offshoots of the punk and new wave scene went in a lot of different musical periods.

Lately, there have been retro groups that have looked to the pre-rock era for their inspiration, sometimes combining various old influences from different times.

This week, we have an interesting group that I think could be described as a bit quirky but appealing in a distinctive way. They call themselves Big Tree, and their new CD, their second full-length recording is called This New Year. They combine a somewhat jazzy writing style with distinctive dual-female-lead vocals that are not exactly traditional folk-style harmonies.

Big Tree formed on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College, just north of New York City. Five students all studying in the jazz department became friends, and started jamming with their instruments in the college's rehearsal space until the place closed at 2 AM, and then continued on exchanging music in listening sessions in one or another of the members' rooms. Keyboard player and composition student Kaila McIntire-Bader let on that she was writing her own songs, when she wasn't doing her jazz composition studies, and after she played some of them to her group of friends, a band was formed. While still students, Big Tree recorded their first album in 2008, and began to develop a following around campus and in some venues in New York City. But after graduation, with the members having career plans, the band was in danger of falling apart after two members left. But they recruited a couple of replacements and the group has continued, touring nationwide, playing some 200 dates, and releasing a couple of EPs along the way.

Now they are out with This New Year, and have also set off on another tour.

The current line-up includes Dan Pirello on guitar, Luke Bace on bass, and Colin Fahrner on drums. Doing the co-lead vocals with Ms. McIntire-Bader is Madeleine Miller-Bottome. The dual lead vocals of Ms. McIntire-Bader and Ms. Miller-Bottome are the most instantly distinctive part of the band's sound. Their singing sometimes hints at classical choral, but with a bit of an edge and a looseness, including pitch-wise, more associated with alternative rock or even rural folk music. And most songs have the dual vocals happening all the time, rather than lead and harmony parts. The rest of the band is fairly conventional, with keyboards, guitar, bass -- sometimes acoustic -- and drums, but they also add some horns in rather non-traditional arrangements. The sound can be rock-like at times in texture, but the compositions are the sort of thing that one would expect from one with an academic background studying jazz composing, with frequent use of 3 and 6-beat rhythms, and good use of changes in mood, texture and dynamics. Lyrically, Ms. McIntire-Bader's songs also show sophistication. The title of the album This New Year is actually a good one, since a number of the songs make reference to seasonal changes. And some of that is woven into the context of love songs.

The CD opens with a piece called This Fall. It demonstrates the interesting combination of sounds that make up Big Tree, including the added horns. The song seems to be basically about an affair having come apart. <<>>

One of the highlights of the album is a track called Augury. The composition has a kind of swirling 6-beat rhythm that gives it a breezy quality. <<>>

The title song This New Year runs more toward straight rock in sound, though it has its interesting twists. <<>>

Continuing with the seasonal theme is the composition called Two Seasons. It's another of their love-songs with a twist. <<>>

Seattle Bound is likewise one of the group's interesting and appealingly quirky tunes. The composition has a lot of musical layers both sonically and in terms of the writing. <<>>

While most of the tracks on the CD have dual lead vocals Ms. McIntyre-Bader is heard largely by herself on a ballad called Storm King <<>> ... before it builds with additional vocals from one Kira Nilsen. <<>>

The last three tracks make up a kind of suite. The first, Home (Here) takes a jazzy direction with its 7-beat rhythm and almost art-rock arrangement. It's another highlight of this intriguing album. <<>>

The musical and lyrical theme of making a home continues on the atmospheric piece called Woods. <<>>

And the triptych concludes with another song about the seasons, October, which is a kind of mini-suite in itself. <<>>

Big Tree's new CD This New Year is another example of a some of the interesting quirkiness that can be found on the contemporary music scene. One can be reminded a bit of Sufjan Stephens or even Arcade Fire in the way the band combines fairly sophisticated musical structures with a sort of loose, more free-spirited sound. The CD is full of creative musical ideas, even if one might find the vocal harmonies a bit edgy. The compositions and arrangements are consistently creative, the lyrics are often intriguing, and the musicianship is quite respectable.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. This was an independent recording, but it has decent clarity and some of the atmospheric sounds are well-handled. The recorded vocal sound may have added a bit to the edginess of the singing. The music has a lot of dynamics, so it's good that the CD was not as badly compressed as many rock albums, but some of the louder moments in the recording are not particularly clean.

It's nice to have music that's a bit off the beaten path from time to time. Big Tree's new release This New Year continues a tradition that goes back to the psychedelic days. It's a smart, intriguing CD that will definitely grow on you.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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