Theo Angell & the Tabernacle Hillside Singers stole my heart in 2007 with the song "Apparently Someone Tried To" and have yet to relinquish control of it. (That song is just sensational.) Tenebrae is Angell's and the Singers' (which apparently, are mostly just Angell) follow-up to Auraplinth, the record that birthed that song I love so dearly. Though no song on Tenebrae quite reaches the near-unattainable heights of "Apparently Someone Tried To," one comes surprisingly close and I'd say this is a more consistent and stronger record.
The album eases to a start with "Wakeling," a guitar-led instrumental featuring subtle and effective violin work by Samara Lubelski, sadly her only appearance. "A Crime From the Vine" is the absolute standout of the album. It's a very oblique and beautiful song. The song is incredibly well-constructed and the arrangement is fantastic. Angell's voice is the center of the song's universe and it's the best it has ever sounded. He pieces together a lovely multi-tracked vocal melody and the only instruments in the piece, piano and drums, both skirt the edges of the track providing important but almost ephemeral counterpoint melodies and embellishments. Angell is really at the pinnacle of his craft with this one. "The Shadow Ring" shifts unexpectedly to uptempo psych-blues with lead guitar by MV whom I'm pretty sure is Matt Valentine ("the bummer road" is in the lyrics after all.) It's pretty good but it lacks the unique arrangement of Angell's topshelf stuff. "Higher Something" also showcases Angell's voice with mellow guitar accompaniment. His singing style is very unusual and can remain somewhat jarring even after repeated listening but that is also very much its strength. Angell's voice, or singing style rather, is something you can continually wrestle with; it continues to feel new and mysteriously entrancing. The song might be a little too loosely structured for its seven and a half minute run time but it takes you to a number of interesting places along the way so one can't complain too much. "Never Heard That Baby Cry," also a seven and a half minute guitar and voice song, follows. It's a good song with an expanded guitar presence, unfortunately though, Angell is singing through a chorus pedal or something which gives his voice a light, cheesy sheen that doesn't totally jive with the stark acoustic guitar. But as I said the song is strong enough to get through that misstep; the final section is particularly pretty. Angell enlists help from PG SIX on woodwinds (mostly flute I think) on "Like A Wind." After an improv-ish intro, the woodwinds, acting somewhat like a small string ensemble, provide stunning accompaniment to Angell's guitar and words. There's a lovely lilt to the songwriting which the woodwinds breath life into beautifully. It's quite a strong piece. Angell adds tape delay to his palette for "Sadie Won't Come (Am I the One for Me?)" and it adds a lot of atmosphere and some strings-esque guitar textures. The song is one of my favorites from the record, even with it clocking in at a staggering eleven and half minutes. Angell paces the tune extremely well as there's a constant rising/falling action. He lets things begin to fray a little and as soon as the song starts to splinter he introduces a new idea or repeats a previous refrain that immediately snaps the song back into form, never allowing the listener's attention to stray. The song ultimately recedes into a hazily, aquatic sound world. Like on "Crime From the Vine," "Sadie" displays Angell's consummate skills as a craftsman in both songwriting and creating simple but immensely effective arrangements. "Salt" is another good track in which Angell further expands his tool set with harp and chloraphist. Your guess is as good as mine as to what a chloraphist is. The track showcases some of Angell's best songwriting on the album, a song that ebbs and flows, seeming to evolve rather than just move from part to part. JOMF (Jackie O Ma'fucka, I'm guessing?) also provides feedback-ridden guitar leads and outro loops. "Masst" is a soaring instrumental with what sounds like a number of layers of voice and guitar and some effected percussion as well. The title track is the finale. After a multi-tracked choral intro, Angell goes about the song in a pretty straightforward way with only a few, subtle embellishments. It's a good choice because the song is definitely strong enough to support itself and any further expansion of the arrangement may have proved to be a distraction. It's one of the most concise songs of the record and an excellent place to conclude Tenebrae.
Angell definitely has one the most unique approaches in, what I guess you would classify as, current folk music. If this record is any indication, he appears to be refining his songwriting and arranging so I'm looking forward to seeing what he and the Singers put together next.
Amish Records packaged the CD with the utmost professionalism and care, the disc comes in a heavy cardboard fold-out sleeve with an accompanying lyric booklet.