Listening to Umbrella Tree is a commitment with no easy outs. That's partially because singer/guitarist Zachary Gresham, singer/keyboardist Jillian Leigh and drummer Derek Pearson completely give themselves over to their live performances—Gresham acting the part of the wiry, animated ringmaster, Leigh the mysterious, girlish coquette and Pearson the focused brute with the precise touch.
And the other reason? The three of them never, ever break character or signal that they're being ironic. That would let audience members off the hook, and give them the smug satisfaction of being in on the joke—if it were a joke.
"We're not interested in being ironic," Gresham says. "If ironic things occur within a more sincere context, then that's fine. But irony just for its own sake...I mean, it's poison. If [the band] is successful in seeming consistent, it's because when we're performing and we're doing big things...we're trying to be caricatures of ourselves and not really trying to put on a different character.... The point is I don't feel like it's put-on."
Various aspects of Umbrella Tree—from stage costumes to their detailed, meandering songs—suggest the way children, left to their own devices on a rainy day, engross themselves in fantastically imaginative worlds. Everyone else only discovers how fun the make-believe game—or the band's music—is by forgetting themselves and playing along.
Not that Gresham, Leigh and Pearson write juvenile fare. For every halfway silly song ("Souls Are Warm Like Eskimos") there's an expletive ("fuck," for example, in "Spit Like a Soldier"), a nuanced character sketch ("Uncle William") or a song that brings fears to life ("Child Bride").
In the four years that the band has been playing shows around Nashville and releasing albums on local indie Cephalopod (What Kind of Books Do You Read? in 2006 and The Church and the Hospital in 2008), they've offered something different and engaging from every angle.
"You're playing and you know that 50 percent of the people watching you are people you know personally—or more than 50 percent," Gresham says. "There's a tendency to go up in your blue jeans and your T-shirt and play a show for your friends, even if you're doing very good things. And this is not to knock that, because...many of my favorite bands in Nashville go up in their jeans and T-shirts and do it, and they kill me. But we didn't want to do that because we...all feel like a performance is a separate entity from a recording. And if you can make a really fun performance happen, then you're really embracing the fact that you are a visual artist when you're onstage."
Umbrella Tree's new album, The Letter C, expands mightily on the visual aspect of what they do. It's a CD and DVD: 16 tracks of shape-shifting, literary-minded—and thoroughly arresting—indie prog-rock, and a video for each and every one, all directed by Pearson.
The music videos don't feature anything as mainstream as the band members playing their instruments, which isn't surprising given how little they're invested in "making it" commercially. "You can't bank on that, you know," says Gresham. "And that's very liberating not to bank on it.... Then it becomes an art project, very explicitly an art project. And then you really can go as crazy as you want."
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