Tallest Trees: “Alouette!”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Tallest_Trees_Alouette.mp3|titles=Tallest Trees: “Alouette!”]
In Nashville, Tennessee, a little way out of town, there’s an old log cabin built out of railroad timber. How long it’s been there is up for debate, but the sagging wood and dusty, discolored beams can’t help but invoke the history of the city where it sits. It’s a history so richly steeped in country and western music that the town and the genre are now almost ubiquitously known as one and the same.
Curiously enough, this same small cabin was also the spot where experimental electro-indie duo Tallest Trees holed up in the summer of 2009 to write and record its debut album, The Ostrich or the Lark (Other Electricities). An album of sprawling musical dexterity and openness, it’s a direct reaction to, and a far cry from, Nashville’s recognized musical staple.
Comprised of Thomas “Trees” Samuel and Dabney “Voice” Morris, Tallest Trees began life, as many personal and creative outlets do, as a side project. From Florida and Virginia respectively, Samuel and Morris met up in Nashville in 2004 while in a variety of bands. “There’s a ton of bands in Nashville—more than anyone knows what to do with, and all very talented,” Samuel says. “But outside of the country scene, it’s a kind of stunted group, if you know what I mean. It’s all very rock ’n’ roll, very straightforward. No one’s really reaching outside of the box.”
That is until now. Bored sick of the rigmarole, Samuel began dabbling in new sounds, invented effects, and off-kilter arrangements. At its inception, Tallest Trees was a solo experiment that could take the form of a nine-member big band on stage. Meanwhile, Dabny was deeply immersed in his own project, Human Voice, for which he played a cello looped through various distortions. Instead of simply supporting each other’s solo material at shows, the two artists combined their brash, revisionist aesthetics in a partnership of atypical pop dementia.
And so it was that the two found themselves inside that little log cabin, surrounded by a mishmash of every kind of noisemaker. As Samuel describes it, “We would sit there, staring at each other, sometimes for hours. We’d just pick up any random instrument and begin. Put it down; pick up something else.” For months this went on, as each track slowly and gradually took on a life of its own.
Multifaceted sounds and effects layer and crisscross throughout the record, so intertwined that the separate elements form one cohesive and accessible form. Found sounds and glitches are played with looping feedback and the duo’s expansive harmonies, so that a simple battery-powered children’s toy booms out like a cathedral organ and hand claps turn into a chorus line of percussion. “That was part of the fun,” Samuel says. “There’s a kind of mystery when you can’t quite pick out the pieces. We just wanted to see what we could produce, what kind of sound could come out. We deliberately did not listen to music much during this time; we didn’t want something to even subconsciously guide us that wasn’t our own.”
Of the myriad comparisons one might try to pin on Tallest Trees, whether the electronic altitudes of Caribou or the tribal tempos of Yeasayer, nothing sticks particularly well. And that’s because in their quest to create something different, they ended up with something original.
“You know, Dabny and I, we’re pretty different in a lot of ways,” Samuel says. “I have a fiancé and feel a little more settled here, while he’s more of the constant traveler. We’re just able to complement and add so much more with that. We’ve also got an amazing drummer, Art Quanstrom, one of the best names ever. He is insanely talented and can do anything. So it’s great working together with that dynamic.”
At times, Tallest Trees’ cacophony is almost overwhelming, with so many edges blurred together—the punctuated timing and unpredictable melodies. The group never lets this pounding energy overtake it, though, and it stands rooted in enough pop sensibility to craft picturesque songs.
“For me, this album is very visual,” Samuel says. “It’s very bright, very colorful.” Book-ended by an opening and closing echo, the songs on The Ostrich or the Lark feel like snapshots taken on a sunny day, every track invoking flowers and hands, streams and stars. Never settled, the album evolves like a cloud on a windy day. It paints a positively glowing, ever-changing picture.
The album cover is an accurate reflection of the music within. On the outside, a collage of leaves and sticks form the titular birds, indicating a simple and organic curiosity. Each separate piece carries its own shade and shape, but together those unique pieces are woven into complementary forms. Presented in front of a plain white background, the animals are almost like guides, meeting us at the beginning and seeing us off at the end. It’s only when the covers are lifted and the album itself, the guts of it, is revealed that we are immersed in a Technicolor prism washing away the formlessness that preceded it.
The fluctuating array of electronics that Tallest Trees employs is a virtual kaleidoscope of jubilant experimentation. With childlike wonder and inspirational passion, the duo is one of the most refreshing, unexpected gems in a city built on a brilliant musical identity. The Ostrich or the Lark is more than just a celebratory record; it’s a reminder of the lifting, liberating quality of music itself. Its reach confined only by imagination, not even the sky is the limit for Tallest Trees.