Thirty-one years ago the Tree People put out their self-titled debut record, and then five years later they followed it up with Human Voices. Aside from the occasional reissue, they have been silent ever since. You would be forgiven for not know this, though; their brand of obscure psych-folk made few waves outside of their Pacific Northwest community, and the early-2000s freak-folk revivalism seemed to have passed them by. Unless you were the type of person who collected Sibylle Baier recordings or spent most of the early ’80s at Oregon folk shows, you probably missed them. Which is too bad; the Tree People have made some of the most charming and inviting American psych-folk tunes, and their earlier releases are classics of the canon.
But here we are, 26 years after their last record, with a new Tree People album. And some things definitely haven’t changed. These three musicians are still making tender and trippy folk tunes designed for woodland creatures with the gentlest of hearts and the kindest of spirits. Take the touching and sparse lyrics to “More Than Yoko,” for instance. The entire song is just 30 words, strung out over two lines of dialogue: “She said, ‘I love you even more than Yoko could ever love John’ / He said, ‘This I know, I love you even more than, even more than John loved Yoko’.”
As stirring as some songs are, though, the album as a whole doesn’t necessarily warrant repeated listenings. It’s charming music, but there are just too many flutes and pan pipes, which turn some songs into background music for NPR or History Channel specials. Pieces that should be interludes are made to stand in for full songs, which they frankly cannot do.
Not every song is new. It’s My Story features a new version of “Space Heater” from their debut, a song which is so well-suited for a lonesome car commercial or a Wes Anderson movie soundtrack, I’m surprised it’s never been licensed. Maybe it’s just the absence of flutes, but that song continues to be a model for warm and organic instrumental folk music for any time.
Except for a reprieve of the album opener, It’s My Story ends with “Legends of the Tree People,” a mythic fairy story that rivals Donovan’s “Atlantis” in its feyness. It’s songs like this that could never be written by musicians today; it’s just too earnest for the 21st Century. Which leads me to believe that ultimately the album title is right; at the end of the day, this album is part of a story that belongs to three guys in Oregon who made two albums, went their own ways for 30 years, and then got back together to do it again. We can bear witness to the brightest moments, but the story is all their own. We should be glad for the magic that we get.