THE TERM “progressive rock” is little more than a witless oxymoron these days. After all, didn’t rock n’ roll spend some fifty years labeled as a progressive form of music before someone decided that we needed to divvy it up into nit-picky sub-breeds? Anything that was rock should, by nature, have been progressive. But that’s hardly the case in today’s market. Some rock music is nostalgic. Some is experimental. Some is classic. And, of course, some is just plain crap.
What, then, legitimately falls into the category of progressive rock in the music world of 2009? Enter Umbrella Tree and their latest album, The Letter C. The two-man-one-woman band from Nashville deliver a refreshing and—dare I say—reformed concoction of eclectic tunes, finding roots in Decemberists-style gothic lyrics driven by a sound not unlike Arcade Fire with hints of The Deadly Syndrome. Their sound is nothing if not complex and, though complexity itself doesn’t necessarily have much to do with quality, Umbrella Tree seamlessly bridges the gap between the two.
There isn’t a single track on The Letter C that sounds like the next, yet each song is very distinctly Umbrella Tree. From the climactic build-up of “Show and Tell” to the eerie theme of what we’ll call the “Periscope Trilogy” to the flawless vocal tradeoffs and harmonies between band members Zachary Gresham and Jillian Leigh, this record redefines track diversity. Yet with consistent use of minor keys, spectral synthesizers, and bizarre lyrical storylines, the musical assortments still fit snugly into a single sixteen-track package. Throw in phrase changes, the rock equivalent of song “movements,” and the occasional blending of one track to the next, and Umbrella Tree has very nearly, though most likely unintentionally, created something of a mini-rock opera.
Despite The Letter C‘s concept-album ambitions, the scattered lyrics keep it from quite making the cut. Each song tells its own offbeat story, and though the “Periscope Trilogy” takes occasional pains to tie them together, they ultimately stand alone. The opening track, for example, tells the captivating story of a king who grows increasingly paranoid of his subjects, while “Uncle William” spins the tale of a man who used to talk to gods until receiving a head injury that caused him to lose his religion. The only apparent common threads being those of psychosis and nonsense. There’s a bit more realism in songs like “I Wish I Was But I Regret To Inform You”—the familiar, sad tale of unrequited love, retold with a sweetness that thankfully transcends cliché—and the heart-wrenching laments “Samuel Crawford’s Widow” and “Letter To Mary,” both of which exhibit perfect blends of funereal poetry with aching melodies.
The only questionable thing about Umbrella Tree and their latest release is: why haven’t more people heard of them? One possibility is that their label, which they appear to have founded themselves, doesn’t offer much in the way of band promotion. Or it could be that their band’s official website doesn’t even show up in a Google search of “Umbrella Tree.” Of course, it’s always possible that the band just doesn’t want to be bigger than they are, although it would be a travesty for such unique musicianship to be confined only to word of mouth and the few reviews that still exist in internet archives.
No matter the reasons for the band’s tragic lack of publicity, one thing remains certain: if there can be any definition at all to the genre of prog-rock, then Umbrella Tree must join the greats at the top of that list. Contemporary artists who are not only willing to push the boundaries, but to gleefully leap over them, laying down quality, honest music—even if a little weird—are few and far between. If what we all used to know and love as rock n’ roll is ever going to dig itself out of the drudgery it so often finds itself stuck in today, if there is to continue to be any progression at all, we can anticipate with much joy that Umbrella Tree will also continue to be one of the key players.
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