“Arbor Labor Union was born from a peach tree in Georgia in the American south. They play psychedelic, repetitious, and joyful rock and roll music,” claims the PR surrounding Sub Pop’s November 2015 signing’s first album under their new moniker (they were previously known as Pinecones).
Further delving will reveal that they’re slightly bonkers, with self-made wafflings about a mighty green conifer tree having limbs wider than the sun’s smile enough to raise an initial eyebrow of concern. Apparently this tree had many seeds hanging from it and was home to creatures both big and small. And the “most fun” of them all was Mr Birdsong, a single white dove known for his beautiful voice. These seeds fall to the ground now and then (they’re actually pinecones, which is where the original name came from, presumably). But these seeds – allegedly – contain all possible decisions a living person can make, and in these seeds on one particular day was the germ of an idea that four friends would form an eternal union in sound and hey ho, Arbor Labor Union was born. At this point, it’s tempting to call for the men in white coats, if we’re honest.
There’s a pattern to Arbor Labor Union’s music that becomes apparent quite quickly – they like to set their stall out early, hitting on a chugging riff or jam and running with it, none more so than the opening track, good old Mr Birdsong who actually gets an entire track named after him, and a lengthy one at that, clocking in at seven and a half minutes. Now normally, this grungy, psychedelic slacker rock trudge would be pretty darn compelling, and for the most part it is. The riff is generally repeated over and over but it’s not in the slightest bit boring or self-indulgent, being comparative in nature perhaps to Television’s Marquee Moon. Where it comes unstuck is courtesy of singer Bo Orr. If you’re yet to hear the band, imagine John Lydon, Mark E Smith and Shaun Ryder all rolled into one. Next, imagine the resulting John E Ryder (no awesome imaginary pornstar name intended) being carted off to solitary. Several years later, John E Ryder resurfaces after escaping, sneaking into a local bar and jumping up on stage for a spot of karaoke after downing a few ales and you’re about there.
As a consequence, the best tracks on I Hear You are where the vocals carry less weight. Unfortunately, aside from the rollicking, welcome relief of instrumental Babel, they all have vocal content of some sort. I Am You’s lengthy outro recovers some ground after more strange vocal theatrics whereby Orr’s constant out of key style sees him change pitch mid note on numerous occasions. Volume Peaks also contains decent instrumental passages during another whopping near eight-minute jam, reminiscent of The Brian Jonestown Massacre perhaps, but the vocal onslaught at one point breaks off for a spoken line that sounds like Star Trek’s Chief O’Brien has been beamed onto the stage instead for the baffling line, “this machine records the truth, then forces it to die”. Belief’d benefits from an intoxicatingly repetitive, jangly riff, but by this point you might be dreading the arrival of vocals, hoping instead that the often lengthy instrumental intros will continue alone, even if they do tend to annoy slightly.
It’s difficult to think of another adequately comparative example of where a band’s music sounds so addictive yet the singing renders it almost unbearable. As good as it occasionally gets on I Hear You, the continuously tuneless wail of the vocals are likely to be where the record either succeeds or fails, depending on how much emphasis the listener puts on the vocal element and whether or not they can see past the often painful experience. If only Mr Birdsong had been given lead vocal duties instead.