Tree Tops 

Local trio Umbrella Tree’s sophomore album wows

Umbrella Tree’s sophomore album The Church & The Hospital opens with a scream—literally. A unison howl prefaces a crash of music. Never a band to allow their audience to get too comfortable, this local threesome mixes moments of alarming beauty with calculated, cacophonous noise. And here the palette has grown even richer—the louds are even louder and the pretty parts often transcendently beautiful.

The source of that powerful dichotomy is the relationship between the band’s two singers: keyboardist Jillian Lee and guitarist Zachary Gresham. The petite blonde and the tall bearded guy in suspenders are an odd pair, visually and vocally. Lee has a sweet, exquisitely controlled vocal instrument, while Gresham’s appeal lies in his expressive, shrill warble. Together, they interweave tricky harmonies and call-and-response chants—the musical equivalent of good cop-bad cop.

Last year’s debut What Kind of Books Do You Read? announced the trio as a force on the local rock scene. With their first full-length, they had what any up-and-coming band would kill for: a clearly defined, unique sensibility. On Church, recorded at Battletapes in East Nashville, engineer Jeremy Ferguson brings the band’s complex ambitions to life. Connecting such disparate ideas may seem like a quixotic task, but the proficient playing and the tight production make it work. It’s particularly impressive given the brevity of the songs—nearly half come in at under three minutes, yet they’re anything but lean.

This is partially due to the band’s literary, quirky breed of rock, rife with motifs and recurring images: churches, hospitals and ailments of all sorts. Here, the “church” influence is not only ideological but sonic, with echoes in the singing, harmonies and gothic instrumentation. On the bridge of “Make Me a Priest,” we get a cappella in what sounds like Latin, and on “The Monk & The Nun,” Gresham promises, “I am using my in-church voice.”

But this latest record also brings some refreshing new tricks to the table. Intermixed with the classical instruments and nostalgic sounds are meticulously employed electronic elements. On the stunning instrumental “Jellyfish Evaporate,” the momentous, swelling opening is speckled with barely audible electronic bleeps—the kind that, if you’re listening while driving, might make you check your blind spot for a nearby reversing semi on first listen—that gradually overtake and eventually dominate. The song opens with the hum of church bells and closes with a robot chorus—a triumph of technology over beauty.

Lee’s “A Horse That Will Come When I Whistle” was What Kind of Books Do You Read’s iconic track—a deliciously coy performance. She made the song’s opening question—which became the album’s title—simultaneously sinister and sexy, and even precocious. Here, her creepy closer “The Youngest Apple” has a similar elusiveness. But instead of subversive sensuality, this tale of an unwanted baby sister’s death has the ambiguous charm of a gothic orphanage bedtime story. Other highlights include the dynamic “1054” (the swirling organ toward the end is the album’s most smile-inducing moment) and “Smells/Bells,” the longest track at five minutes, and one of the strongest showcases for the leading duo’s wonderful harmonies.

More than once, The Church & The Hospital made me think of author Ray Bradbury—master of understatement hidden in opulence. Like that craftsman, this band’s talent lies in indulgence, in packing as much information and as many ideas as possible into a tight, polished space. In their temerity, they find great power. A song in German? Why not? Another in French? Sure! Best local release of 2008 to date? Most definitely.

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