Having crafted the songs to create a maximum impact in a live setting, the band made their next break with past practice, electing to work with an outside producer for the first time. Nicolas Vernhes, whose credits include breakthrough albums from Deerhunter, Dirty Projectors, Animal Collective, and Wild Nothing, endorsed the band’s new minimal aesthetic, and the question in the studio became, “How much can we strip away” With an approach that forefronts beats and basslines, Vernhes and the band lift away the orchestral density of the previous albums – the emotional analog of Picker’s intense lyrics – leaving a more direct framework of soul-inflected guitar lines, throbbing groove, and Picker’s soaring vocal hooks.
Fans that came to the band lured by the lush classicism of All Alone In An Empty House and A Church That Fits Our Needs (the Wall Street Journal’s album of the year in 2012) will not be disappointed. After all, the band are known for their unique orchestral sound, and Church, with its intense narrative of loss, drew lavish praise from all quarters, both as an “exquisite exercise in the seduction of melancholy” (Iowa Press-Citizen) and “a stirring blend of modest rusticity and urbane ambition” (New York Times). The haunting lyricism of Picker’s voice and melodies has not diminished in the new sparer approach, but instead rises to the fore, bringing out that timeless quality of the melodies that is the common ground of both folk and pop music. This pop quality, buried but always present in previous efforts, shines on Past Life; not pop in any trivial, retro sense, but the yearning lilt of Harry Nilsson or Mark Hollis, that floating melodicism that Relix found so “achingly beautiful.”
Picker, for one, is pleased to be moving on from the highly personal lyrics of the previous albums to more universal themes. He singles out “Glass Harp” from the new album, describing it as “a half awake song to my wife,” adding that it may be “as much of a love song as I can write.” On “Daunting Friend” Picker promises his companion “we’ll float around the town,” a cinematic image that recalls the romantic mysticism of Wings of Desire more than it does any past Lost In The Trees lyric. This new openness in Picker’s imagist lyrics – loose, joyful, embracing – tends on Past Life toward meditations on what Picker describes as “recognizing impermanence,” all rendered by Lost In The Trees’ greatest instrument (perhaps overshadowed in the past by the violins and harps): Picker’s profound tenor voice. The voice the New York Times called the “essential embodiment of vulnerability” becomes on Past Life the load-bearing wall – it’s a burden this extraordinary instrument, and Picker, are more than ready to take on.
But who scores the quick cuts and long stares, those in-between moments that often matter more than anything else? What keeps the pulse of the story of a life? For the past four years, I’ve been listening to All Tiny Creatures. Living to All Tiny Creatures. It began with a demo forwarded over by Chris Rosenau, attributed to Thomas Wincek, a guy I only knew as Chris’s bandmate in the venerable Collections of Colonies of Bees and the brain behind Emotional Joystick, a name that rested in my mind somewhere between Autechre and the Morr Music label. Sure, I’ll put it on. A day later, I’d played the songs no less than a dozen times over. They’d taken root. Some guy in Wisconsin just gets it. Among our extended group of friends, I’d found the music that could stand up to my brain and hold its own. I’d long-loved Harmonia, Ashra, XTC, and King Crimson, like some time-traveler three decades away from her home…but All Tiny Creatures taught me why.
Two years after that first listen, Thomas Wincek multiplied by four: enter Andrew Fitzpatrick, Ben Derickson, and Matthew Skemp. Hometapes collaborated with the band on the release of Segni, a four-track 12″ EP and instrumental thunderclap of skill, theory, and intention. Live performances turned explosive; All Tiny Creatures was evolving. By then, Wincek, along with his Collections of Colonies of Bees bandmates and Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, was now a force behind the band Volcano Choir. With a mind stretched across projects, not to mention life with a young family in Madison, Wisconsin, Wincek seemed to run on some hidden aquifer of ideas and energy. It was just this accretion, like gasses swirling in outer space, that brought the band to critical mass in the shape of 2011’s Harbors.
Harbors, like any great album, defines its artists and has the power to further define its listener. It’s meticulous and soulful. The building blocks of the record, like Segni, were whittled from looped and freestanding sounds democratically created by synthesis, guitars, and percussion. But as the needle glides into “Holography”, the swift and playful start of side A, there’s a new kind of compositional poise. Harbors is an album of transformative repetition, of music that travels freely between the left and right brain. It pulls from the same well (with a new bucket) as their Krautrock and Minimalist forebears (guys like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Manuel Göttsching) and even the greater history of rhythmic percussion found the world over. And then there’s one entirely new instrument for All Tiny Creatures: the human voice.
All Tiny Creatures introduce vocals on Harbors, adding a new dimension to their sound as well as to their entire creative process. As songs began to take shape, they were shared with a close (and very talented) group of friends. These were instruments that could talk back. Joining All Tiny Creatures vocalists Thomas Wincek and Andrew Fitzpatrick are Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Roberto Carlos Lange (Helado Negro & Epstein), Phil Cook, Brad Cook, and Joe Westerlund (Megafaun), Ryan Olcott (12 Rods, Mystery Palace), Matthew Byars (The Caribbean), and Jennifer Fitzpatrick (a scientist and Andrew’s wife).
This mix of control and community is audibly liberating, balancing what it means to take the primitive urge of music and to push it through machines. The result is just downright beautiful. All Tiny Creatures captures the mood of a sunrise, the hum of a factory line, and the swirl inside your mind, all at once. Harbors honors a whole era of musical history, and, as you nod your head to the beat, writes a new chapter, all its own. This is truly modern music.
-Sara Padgett Heathcott, Hometapes