The sweeping All Alone in an Empty House, by Chapel Hill, N.C.'s Lost in the Trees, is one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Ari Picker, the group's de facto leader, merges his Berklee training with his homespun, dark folk leanings—which nicely underplays his perhaps grander ambitions. As the album's composer and songwriter, Picker seems comfortable playing both crestfallen troubadour and symphonic mastermind.
The album's title track is a thesis statement: a lovesick number with gently plucked acoustic guitar awash in organ drones, sweeping strings, celestial backing vocals and some horns. It's ambitious, and lesser groups would botch it— but Lost in the Trees handles it masterfully.
Although the debut is a success, it has its rocky moments. Picker's songs are nakedly earnest, which is not always a good thing. The twee-like "Song for the Painter" is compositionally enjoyable and an analgesic for the heartbroken, but mired in mawkish lines, like, "I shout out to my grandparents / Hope you find each other in heaven." While the orchestral instrumental "Mvt. II Sketch" is a thing of beauty on an album of such quietude, the classical flourishes of "Mvt. 1 Sketch" sound grandiosely misplaced.
Still, there is much to love and admire, from the way the singing saw bleeds into vamping string blasts on "Walk Around the Lake," to the staccato electric guitar and unhinged vocals of "Fireplace," to the clear-eyed closing ballad "For Leah and Chloe."
As a debut album, it's a grand statement by a quiet collective.