Ari Picker ran listeners through the emotional ringer with Lost in the Trees' first two LPs, especially 2012's A Church That Fits Our Needs, a set of songs constructed from the grief, anger, bafflement and finality of his mother's suicide. That record's sublime orchestral textures belied the narrative rough ride, providing a sound cushion for the heartbroken to collapse in and find succor.
Picker conceded he needed a new direction and subject matter, and the Chapel Hill native returns with his band pared down from six members to a "lean, electronic rock quartet." Of course, change is relative — Picker's songs keep their brittle emotional inflection even over the title track's pulsing beats and front-of-the-mix guitar and the skittering computer tics of songs like "Wake" and "Upstairs." ("Don't let me fall apart," Picker sings on the latter over slinky electric and fluttering harmonies, suggesting In Rainbows' chill-out moments as an obvious transit point.)
Much of that continuity comes from the singer's airy tenor. Picker hovers just over the music, resonating in a line like "such beautiful sorrow" — from the haunting "Lady in White" — with organic conviction. His halting vocals on "Sun" even seem like the dust-motes more than the sunlight.
In point of fact, for an LP allegedly "stripped bare," Past Life still revels in luscious textures throughout. Groove may underpin these songs, but "Daunting Friend" has immense choruses that suggest early Arcade Fire, and baritone sax buffets the piano glissandos of "Glass Harp" like crisp summer storms, recalling Talk Talk's modal experiments on Spirit of Eden. Still, like LITT's earlier efforts, there are moments amidst the crushing beauty when you want Picker to let go with a cathartic wail or howls of chaotic feedback — something to suggest that sorrow and introspection aren't the only responses to life's difficulties.
Lost in the Trees will perform at Snug Harbor on Feb. 27.