music you should know: umbrella tree’s the letter c

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Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

music you should know: umbrella tree’s the letter c

last year, thanks to our friends at noisetrade, i discovered this strange little band out of nashville called umbrella tree and their album the church and the hospital. that strange little band with that strange little album ended up landing on my best of 2008 list (and their song, tooth on the floor made my rest of the best songs list). a year later, that album still finds itself in frequent rotation—that is, until i received their latest album, the letter c.

before i get into the details of the new album, let me try to broadly describe umbrella tree and their music. with anything good in life, you should be able to tell someone you meet about it in a concise sentence-length description. so, i thought i’d give it a whirl with umbrella tree. here’s my tries:

it’s like if three art students had a really good acid trip and recorded an album.

it’s like if three art students had a really bad acid trip and recorded an album.

it’s like if the mad hatter, march hare and the cheshire cat decided to join the opera.

it’s like if two mad scientists coaxed a beautiful young girl into helping them create an operatic frankenstein.

it’s like if the two guys in weird science created their perfect woman and then decided to record an album together.

it’s like if the everybodyfields grew up listening to iggy pop instead of gillian welch.

it’s like if that flaming, running stuntman guy from movies decided to make a record while still on fire.

ok, so those descriptions—as vivid as they may be—don’t exactly give a very tangible analogy. quite frankly, it’s difficult to describe what umbrella tree does. some have described it as bohemian bookworm prog rock or experimental chamber pop or just frenetic dissonance, but whichever way you choose to describe them, it’s just good. weird isn’t really weird if it’s good weird. it really transcends categories and that’s one of the things that makes the journey with their music so great.

while the church and the hospital was very experimental and raw, the letter c is much more aceessible. admittedly, while this is generally regarded as a positive, it’s one of my very few critiques. it felt a little like the band and/or the label was pushing to make it a little more public-friendly, at the risk of over-polishing. of course, with that said, you need to understand that umbrella tree is doing anything but making records for the top 40 wasteland. so, over-polishing is strictly relative in this case.

my one other minor criticism is that the dynamic arc begins to fade a little towards the end of the album. wheras the first half of the album has quite a bit of sonic and dynamic unpredictability, you finish the album waiting to recapture the momentum of said first half.

with that said, the letter c spends most of its time giving listeners a growing number of reasons to clear a spot on their impending best of ’09 list. there’s a lot to love.

in just the first 10 seconds, the creeping build gives the listener a chance to wade into the water before being immersed by the spectacle that is umbrella tree. again, in that first track, his majesty grows suspicious, you see the most defining and compelling aspect of the band. zachary gresham and jillian leigh make the perfect opposites attract relationship. on one hand, gresham is a wiry, frenetic figure whose voice provides much more drama than it does depth. his vocal counterpart, jillian, is the beautiful songbird who provides the perfect sweet to gresham’s sour. what pulls it all together is derek pearson’s steadfast unpredictability as the percussive, proverbial man-behind-the-curtain.

another interesting dynamic on this album—as opposed to past records—is the balance between the frenetic musical/vocal uncertainty and the delicate story-telling in songs such as show & tell and starfish. again, i tend to lean towards the songs with a lot of dynamism, but the slower tracks provide a little breathing room and a chance to enjoy the underrated songwriting. lyrically, there’s a lot more under the surface than just songs about the sea—like hope and loneliness and insecurity and faith and doubt—and it’s easy to lose sight of the lyrical depth in the midst of the frenzied pace.

i could list 15 more elements of the band and the album that are great, but i think i’ve summarize enough of the highlights. it’s definitely a band worth checking. even if you don’t fall in love like i did, you’ll at least appreciate the break from the routine of what you were previously listening to.

if you want to find out more, you can check them out at or you could even buy their albums over at cdbaby.

i’ll leave you with my favorite track: uncle william