Arbouretum - Gourd of Gold EP

8/10

Unlikely as it may sound, this Arbouretum-do-Gordon-Lightfoot EP proves a smash hit in musical synergy.

Deservedly counted amongst the most prominent practitioners of heavy-psych noodling, Arbouretum have grasped that there’s inherent value in both extended bouts of fretboard-milking and quality songwriting. Only the kind of aficionado who puts the ‘fan’ in ‘fanatic’, however, could claim with total conviction that the band’s songwriting matches their ability to conjure earth-trembling jams ala ‘Song of the Nile’.

Credited as one of the founders of the commercially potent late 60′s folk-pop sound, Gordon Lightfoot has gathered plenty of plaudits as a songwriter. Even so, Lightfoot (born 1938) remains a marginal figure outside of his native Canada, a situation that could be credited to an inability to locate suitably sympathetic musical settings. A quick fumble around the internet links Lightfoot with the MOR likes of John Denver, but the connection must be down to overly smooth production values : the steely core at the centre of Lightfoot’s finest songs is spectacularly unsuited to the comforting certainties of easy listening.

A Gourd of Gold, then, could be summarised as a mutually beneficial arrangement; both parties emerge in best possible light. Arbouretum infuse Lightfoot’s tunes with a brooding, troubled mood that locates the stark nucleus of these songs, much as they did on their superb cover of Jimmy Webb’s haunting but often over-egged ‘Highwayman’ on 2010′s The Gathering. The mainly stellar results make you wish this was a full album instead of a 26-minute EP.

Lightfoot considers ‘The Wreck of Edmond Fitzgerald’, a stately account of a 1975 shipwreck on Lake Superior, his finest achievement. Appropriately, the chilling, haunting and restrained take that opens the EP could well be Arbouretum’s most powerful performance to date. Suitably sombre without being needlessly gloomy, majestic without bordering on bombast, you can almost sense the band’s excitement at having a song of this calibre to chew on. It’s the best kind of a cover: respectful of the original yet intent on remoulding it in the band’s own shape, keeping the spotlight on Lightfoot’s mastery of storytelling whilst building up an unstoppable momentum.

Remarkably, a stark rendition of ‘Protocol’ is almost as powerful, the ill-fitting rhythm track of the original replaced with an ominous drone that more than matches the sombre timbre of this superb reflection on the human cost of war. Compared to this, the rest of it is relatively lightweight. ‘Carefree Highway’ is basically an electrified take on the fine country-rock original, whilst the disembodied rendition of ‘Early Morning Rain’ should be applauded for having a go at a genuinely fresh approach to an oft-covered standard, even as it threatens to ditch the original’s solid-gold melody altogether.