Ari Picker, singer/songwriter/arranger for North Carolina's Lost in the Trees, lost his mother in the summer of 2009 when she took her own life. That loss haunts the band's achingly beautiful new record, A Church That Fits Our Needs. Picker's mother, however, does not. If anything, Picker succeeds in dividing the two -- the person and the feeling of losing that person -- so that while the hurt may hover like a shroud, his mother feels more like a muse overseeing the music, right down to her picture on the album's cover.
The album captures perfectly the confusion and sheer weight of the pain that must follow this kind of loss. If the band's last album made clear lines between their folk leanings and their neo-classical bent, then this album meshes them with a staggering ease. Thick beds of strings coat these songs in gauze layers, with the sound sometimes swelling to impossibly size and nearly muddled. That muddling, though, shows just how difficult catharsis is to find. Picker's voice may keen sweetly over "Golden Eyelids," but strings rise and fall in tight coils behind him, storm-like and ever looming. "Neither Here Nor There" pits clacking percussion against airy clouds of string and voice. "Garden" is full of jarring peaks and valleys, harsh edges that cut into Picker's smooth singing so when he sings "It's so peaceful here," you can feel just how tenuous that peace can be.
The record explores this tension well -- between trying to find peace and knowing you can't force it, not yet -- but A Church That Fits Our Needs sounds more like a tribute, even a muted celebration, than a wake. "Icy River" is both one of the more heartbreaking songs on the record (Picker's singing is, all over the record, beautiful and sad) but it's also a chance for Picker to claim his mother, to complete her story by telling it to us. "Don't you ever dare think she was weak hearted," he demands before recounting lessons learned, time spent in the woods "where a church was started." Here we get a picture of a woman -- herself an artist -- who tries to see the world differently, and Picker continues that distinct vision in his band's unique mix of genres and sounds.
So while the album may break your heart in places -- "This Dead Bird is Beautiful" will bring a tear to your eye -- it's also a deeply intimate and ultimately hopeful portrait. Even when Picker sadly admits, in closer "Vines," that "there are things that songs can't say" it's still a brilliant and honest moment to end this record on. The Church That Fits Our Needs is the sound of loss and tribute, but it's just that: a sound. It simultaneously calls up and soothes hard feelings, but in the end we have to take our hurts out into the world. This is an album about the stories we tell to keep memories alive, how they can keep us on our feet. "I'll always have her eyes," he insists late in the record, and with them -- it seems -- a unique way of seeing the world. With his band, Picker turns that perspective into a unique and lush sound, one that mixes disparate elements without watering any of them down.
A Church That Fits Our Needs isn't easy to define, but it is easy to get lost in. Too deep in its emotion to idly listen to, and too warm in its instrumentation to wear you down, this record proves a strange, incomplete comfort -- one that embraces loss as much as it tangles with it. Which is what makes it work so well.