The woman who stares out at you from the cover of Lost in the Trees’ second album resembles a Renaissance muse more than a photographed subject. She is the mother of the band’s frontman Ari Picker, and she took her own life in 2009. That loss naturally haunts the musician, as such a tragedy would anyone, but A Church That Fits Our Needs addresses her death in a roundabout way, favoring allegorical storytelling over straightforward eulogizing. Picker infuses his lyrics with North American magical realism, full of dark forest, dead birds, mysterious churches and ominous lakes, and the band soundtracks them with florid arrangements that stop just shy of fussy.
The loss of a loved one has inspired some solid indie albums over the past few years, from the Arcade Fire’s Funeral to Jennifer O’Connor’s Over the Mountain, Across the Valley, and Back to the Stars. While it’s all too easy to assign such releases more import and impact than the music actually achieves, A Church That Fits Our Needs complicates that tendency: it’s a deeply guarded album, one that deploys its bleak whimsy to keep the tragedy private. Picker allows the death of his mother to drive but not define the music, balancing confession with confabulation. The album is stirring without wallowing; it can move even the listener who knows nothing of the backstory.
“We’re neither here nor there,” Picker sings on opener “Neither Here Nor There,” his androgynous tenor keening gently. It’s an effective evocation of the in-between stages of life and grief as well as the in-between spaces of classical, folk, rock and soundtracks. Formerly a student of film scoring at the Berklee College of Music, Picker draws from such composers as Shostakovich and Stravinsky, not to mention Bernard Hermann and Nino Rota. The shivers of strings in “Golden Eyelids” evoke old Disney soundtracks, along with all the precarious innocence that reference might imply. The sing-songy female vocals on “Red” suggest an update of Krzysztof Komeda’s score to Rosemary’s Baby, along with all the supernatural menace that reference might imply.
Picker isn’t just adding pomp and bombast to these songs; the arrangements add nuance and specificity, as though he was scoring short films in his mind. The band, which includes a revolving roster of musicians, synthesizes these various touchstones so that A Church That Fits Our Needs never becomes simply a bundle of influences or a regurgitation of Picker’s Berklee curriculum. Nor does it become self-important; when it’s overwrought, it’s overwrought with purpose: The Sturm und Drang of “Garden” arrives as a much-needed release late in the album, the logical conclusion of so many guarded moments. Lost in the Trees rethink of the music of grief and catharsis, turning this album into a loving and lively wake without neglecting either the precariousness of life or the horrors of death.