This is Not a Review: Arbor Labor Union’s New Petal Instants
You can pick your friends, you can pick your boogies, and you can definitely pick your friends’ boogies, so long as those boogies emanate from the radiant-revival revolutionaries Arbor Labor Union.
Let’s begin with two things that are true: (1) This is a review of Arbor Labor Union’s New Petal Instants, a joyous burst of modern-cum-classic country-rock; and (2) This is not a review of New Petal Instants in the slightest.
Let’s continue with two more things that are true, though this time in less tension with one another: (1) Arbor Labor Union is a euphoric four-piece from Atlanta, GA, with current and past bona fides in the punk, hardcore, and metal world; and (2) Arbor Labor Union is a surrealist whirligig, a calligrammatic sashay, a new dance with old steps that only the very limited group of everybody can shake it loose to. Whichever of these two equally true truths resonates with you, let it be the truth that soothes and grooves you.
What does it mean to call a band “calligrammatic”? A calligram is a text designed or arranged so that it creates a thematically related image: a poem about raindrops in the shape of an umbrella; sprouting lines of words that blossom into a flower; a story about Ol’ Switch’s bathroom routine in the shape of a hellish latrine. A calligram implies a visual, textual, or even textural grammar that is done and undone simultaneously. The moment we acknowledge the object (the –gram), the writing (calli-) disappears. Likewise, when we read the text, the image evaporates. We are confronted with the differences between seeing and reading, between objects and words, between words as objects and words as something else, between objects/words and their meanings, between signifier and signified. Or, as Foucault puts it more elegantly, “The very thing that is both seen and read is hushed in the vision, hidden in the reading.” Arbor Labor Union, in their herbaceous old thyme rhythms and verdant kudzu blues, sashay to and fro like a calligram, swinging between meanings on an interstitial dance floor.
What, then, does it mean to call a band “surrealist”? It might mean that the band has a disorienting, dreamlike quality to it. That would certainly be true of Arbor Labor Union. “How long was I gone?” asks vocalist Bo Orr in an increasingly hallucinatory timbre, as time seems to slip off its axes and you find yourself not quite sure how long he’s been gone or how long it’s been since he began asking how long he’s been gone. Or it might mean that I’m annoying, a point proven succinctly by everything that has come before and will come after this sentence. Thirdly, it might mean that the band possesses the qualities of surrealism. Specifically, I’m thinking of René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images and what “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” might tell us about a band that sounds like Creedence Clearwater Revival on an outer-space peace-punk vibrato trip. This isn’t Cosmo’s Factory. This is a cosmos factory, an interstellar (and worker-owned) assembly line where the entirety of being absorbs every being in entirety in a process called cosmosis.
In Magritte’s oil painting, a gorgeously rendered tobacco pipe floats in space above the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The sentence, complete with a period, tells us definitely, “This is not a pipe.” Though some might find it tedious, I’ve always found Magritte’s irresolvable painting utterly delightful and endlessly playful. Of course “this” is not a pipe! “This” is a painting of a pipe! Actually, “this” is not a painting of a pipe. “This” is a pronoun and not a pipe and is itself part of the painting to which it may or may not refer, seeing as Magritte’s painting includes what might or might not be a pipe as well as a sentence claiming “This is not a pipe.” So maybe the pipe that makes up just a piece of the painting is a pipe, but the sentence saying “This is not a pipe” and the painting as a whole are what are not pipes, as one is clearly a sentence and not a pipe and the other is a painting of a pipe, sentence, and background, and thus also not a pipe. But if this piece of the painting is a pipe, why can’t I put tobacco in it and smoke it in public like a total dork? Does functionality necessarily imply definition? Even if functionality doesn’t—because it can’t—imply definition, this is still probably not a pipe, though what we are all looking at, comprehending as, and agreeing on is that that is, in fact, a pipe. Just not a pipe that is a pipe. Foucault summarily writes that “negations multiply themselves” in Magritte’s work, leaving us flummoxed with glee.
Back when Arbor Labor Union were known as the Pinecones, they released a debut album that was not a debut album. Recorded live on WUOG 90.5, Plays Cosmic Hits was a revelation of 7 secrets and sounds as singular today as it was in 2014. Though it blearily resembles a looser Lungfish or a less antagonistic Self Defense Family, it’s not post-punk. Though it hints at an off-kilter weirdo guitar rock vibe, it’s not the noisy nonsense of U.S. Maple or Shudder to Think. Though it’s laden with southern groove and thick with syrupy repetition, it’s not stoner rock. What the Pinecones were was never easy to define; saying what they were not was a much simpler task. Negations multiply themselves throughout Plays Cosmic Hits, culminating in the paralinguistic and surrealist “This is Not a Song.” As with Magritte’s pipe, this song refuses the too-easy presumptions of signification. Songs, thoughts, and bodies are not songs, thoughts, and bodies. They are, to be sure, but they are also something distinct from their easy referents.
From the beginning, the Pinecones Arbor Labor Union committed to unsettling expectations and uprooting habitualized notions—and with good reason. “Habitualization,” writes Victor Shklovsky, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” While making the stone stony seems to contradict both what Magritte and Arbor Labor Union were after, it is exactly the right story. “This is Not a Song” and Ceci n’est pas une pipe force us to think about—to consider, to remember—what makes a song a song, a pipe a pipe, a life a life. By divorcing these things from themselves and thus re-making them, Magritte, ALU, and Art do not merely leave them remade; rather, they open them up for a constant reconsideration and re-assembling that leads to a more effusive, participatory, and experiential form of living.
We might call this a sense of eternal renewability—the ability to look at and experience the world anew over and over again. Take, for instance, the music video for “Volume Peaks,” a quintessential track from ALU’s 2016 Sub Pop debut I Hear You. Shot on Jekyll Island’s surreal Driftwood Beach, the video finds the band members birthing, springing, and blooming forth to discover a world of recovered sensations. Akin to a secular baptism or a transcendentalist revival, “Volume Peaks” repeatedly focuses on everyday objects in order to empty them of their quotidian qualities and thus refill them with a sense of wonder. More to the point, the video finds the band reveling in the quotidian, insisting on the joy to be found in the mundane. Just look what a hat, a guitar, and a flower can mean if we ever let them.
For philosopher Ernst Bloch, this is a form of “astonished contemplation,” a philosophical reprieve from the “darkness of the lived instant.” Glossing Bloch, the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes, “Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating present-ness and allows one to see a different time and place.” This is what ALU hoped to accomplish in “Volume Peaks” and on the rest of I Hear You. “What might it mean to be astonished at something as everyday as music? What might we illuminate?” Arbor Labor Union seemed to ask on every track. It’s a pressing question, and one in need of repeated asking and answering. This incessant patterning, mirrored in the band’s circulating, rhythmic, stacking sound, was Arbor Labor Union laboring to be astonished at what deceptively simple hooks, melodies, and ideas can sound like and say. Quotidian astonishment, then, as philosophy and genre. Following suit, Orr’s vocals had softened since Sings for Your Now and the band had concomitantly relaxed into a mellower, even more contemplative sound. There’s still fervor and verve in both, and what is so striking about I Hear You is the tension between the relative tranquility of the band’s approach and the frequent moments of heightened bliss. This is Neil Young if Neil grew up listening to Dylan Carlson and not the other way around. Such a sonic mix allowed the band the space to take a long walk through their beliefs.
But such an approach is risky, and I Hear You was ALU’s only record on Sub Pop. And while an unwillingness to compromise might look short-sighted to some, it is that very unwillingness that willed Arbor Labor Union through Sub Pop dropping them and the departure of their original drummer. It has also led them to the sound that makes New Petal Instants perhaps the most honest expression yet of the band’s identity. Though distinct, the origins of New Petal Instants can be heard clearly on the band’s must-listen 2017 ALU’S BLUES EP and on 2018’s Wild Doves, a collection of live songs and I Hear You leftovers. What these two releases reveal is how foundational the Grateful Dead and Mississippi Fred McDowell always were for ALU. New Petal Instants draws even more earnestly from these wellsprings and is a culmination of a years-long journey towards self-expression and unfettered joy for the band.
New Petal Instants finds Arbor Labor Union partnered again with Athens’ Arrowhawk Records, a more fitting home for their down-home boogie. New drummer Bryan Scherer, a veteran of a litany of sweet Atlanta bands, melds with bassist Ryan Evers to lend a shuffling, swinging backbone to a band that has toked more than a gram of Gram Parsons. Album opener “Lasso” ropes listeners in with its 60’s country-rock flavor while the second track “Flowerhead” nearly leaps out of the cassette tape spools to grab and do-si-do you. Orr’s vocals are still unmistakable in their jubilant monotony, but he has never been more adept at following the rhythms and melodies of his and Brain Atoms’ twin-guitar twang. “Every new petal instant becomes a cosmos,” intones Orr before immediately compelling us to “pick a boogie.” What else are we to do but dance right along?
The rest of New Petal Instants follows suit with numerous short bursts of Cream-coloured, Flying Burrito Brother-ed, Sweetheart of the Rodeo-smothered, Howard Finster-covered folk ‘n roll. “Big Face in the Sky,” “Piper’s Play,” and “Crushed by Fear Destroyer” are punchy transcendentalist political anthems, while “Give Us the Light” is the most churchified I’ve felt lo these many years. New Petal Instants‘s upbeat, vibrating, and acousto-electric atmosphere only really slows down for a re-recording of the brilliantly rambling “Riddlesnake Blues,” the aforementioned daytripper “How Long Was I Gone,” and the album’s serene closer “Highway Tape Loop.” These tracks are the bending, craning chthonic limbs of driftwood growing out of the shimmering sun-softened sand of the rest of the album. “Highway Tape Loop,” in particular, stands out as a sleepy-eyed stare through the radio waves of ALU deep time. To end on a loop that reminds listeners of earlier ALU incarnations is a recursive act, one that finds a band enjoying a sound that it has been all too happy to leave behind. It leaves us entirely unsure of the journey’s next step, though we can be assured that the journey is still unfolding, hummed as it is in an earthy tone across a galaxy of possible new routes.
Thematically, the band continues to conjure up a carefree cosmogony for the free-flung orbit these Flowerheads find themselves traveling. The album art’s folksy psychedelia is a repository of figures and images that are inextricable from the ALU mythos. The riddlesnake and the wild doves, flowers and mountains, smiling moons and skies, Rimbo and Perdy Slow, all appear in a cosmological bestiary, lingering in the language of light and love. Yet Arbor Labor Union is emphatically not a case of what Alex Niven has repeatedly called the “pastoral localism” of early 2010s ironic, revanchist folk hipster culture. “If gone are the days,” and they most certainly are and should stay that way, “then today is nigh!” New Petal Instants is an album of this moment and the next one. It is a calligram that uses new words and old sounds to create an image that has yet to exist but has never not existed. It’s as ssslippery as a “sssong sssung by a sssnake.” Take a look and take a listen. What joy emerges when what we expect to see or hear slides and glides away and all that’s left is all that’s new?