Arborea sail across a fossil sea

Hearing Red
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  April 25, 2011


When critics say a band have a timelessness about them, people generally mean the band's music is sort of universally appealing, outside of trends or genres. And the mostly acoustic duo Arborea are that, especially on their fourth album, the new Red Planet. But Shanti and Buck Curran also seem to exist outside of time itself, both inhabiting a world that never actually was and pacing their songs so that they seem to make time elastic.

The title track, a two-minute instrumental drone like a defective klaxon, reminded me especially of Jonathan Lethem's Girl in Landscape, where time and reality are bent on a foreign world, and yet the themes — coming of age, peer pressure, adolescent isolation — are perfectly normal.

Arborea's songs are generally much prettier than that, though, with Shanti Curran's vocals alternatingly resonant and whisper-sweet. They leave in plenty of what the mastering engineers call "mouth noises," so she at times seems to actually brush up against your ear, especially in the desperately languid "Black Is the Colour," an Appalachian traditional once recorded by Nina Simone.

"Careless Love" is about as sexy as Shanti gets, accompanying herself on ukulele: "Couldn't keep you from my door/When I wore my apron low." Buck's presence is felt through a ghost of slide guitar.

"Spain" is more Jose Gonzalez, Shanti dipping lower in the register for the verse before arching into a doubled falsetto. Guest cellist Helena Espvall's cello cuts in tremendously, a grounding force captured with just enough reverb. Buck fingerpicks his guitar with a bit of a hiccough, as though to "catch the wind to hold the feeling once again." For "Arms and Horses," Espvall's other contribution, Buck uses an electric guitar to emphasize a quickening of pace, like there's trouble in the forest, all of the animals picking up their ears and raising anxiety levels.

The nine-minute-long "Wolves" is the album's heart, starting up with chiming strings like bells, stripped down and sedate: "Long before the time of my time/In the wind there was a great wind." Slowly, like a Massive Attack song done by string band, it builds into something of a head-nodder by the 5:00 mark, then Buck joins with a repeating electric guitar that's like a lighthouse's beacon cutting through dense fog.

Talk about timeless — at times you'd swear these two have an Adam and Eve thing going on.

On the cover of Tim Buckley's "Phantasmagoria in Two," they slow it down with a resonating banjo, creating layers of sound on which Shanti sits atop. Pull up an original version on YouTube and you tell me which recording sounds like it was done in 2010.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at

RED PLANET | released by Arborea |

CORRECTION: The original version of this article cited "Phantasmagoria in Two" as having been written by Jeff Buckley, rather than Tim Buckley.

  Topics: CD Reviews , Music, Jose Gonzalez, Nina Simone,  More more >
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