Never overconcerned with precision (but never boring, either), Heather Christian and the Arbornauts tape flowers to a beat-up grand piano, blanch their faces, don a whole lot of gothy white, and stand there just daring you to remind them that Labor Day was months ago. The band’s set mixes some choice covers with a number of lyrically inventive originals, which Christian howls like a werewolf with a voice made of molasses. The theatrical interstitials are mostly unnecessary, but they’re not hurting anybody.
Any band that credits one of its members (Mike Mikos) as “trumpet/electric guitar/dramaturgy” already has a leg up on all those other, dramaturgically disabled piano punk bands. Mikos and designer-conceiver-singer-piano player Christian have certainly turned out a show with plenty of theatrical appeal. From the moment the lights come up on the multihyphenate musicians, it’s clear this is neither exactly a musical nor exactly a concert performance.
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What’s not clear is the plot that’s supposed to follow the music, though there seems to be some kind of airplane journey with a crash landing involved, and a trip to the afterlife, maybe? No? Then never mind. About halfway through the show, the musicians who aren’t singing “Hide Your Love Away” at that moment hand out biscotti (a la flight attendants), which raises the blood sugar and quells the frustration.
The Beatles cover is pretty good, but the best bit of thievery is the wonderful, harmonic version of the Decemberists’ “Engine Driver,” which opens the set. From there, Christian mixes Bach and Cyndi Lauper and then takes a Debussy break.
The real reasons to make the trip downtown to LaMaMa, though, rise up out of Christian during the songs she wrote herself: “Your mother was an architect of quilted squares and ravens’ bones,” she moans during “I’ll Fall Away.” It’s the disjointed poetry on top of her bizarre cadences and harmonies that really sell these songs.
Christian makes all the sounds of a young woman exploring her voice and finding it bigger than she had dared to hope, and thus, words and phrases vanish in the diphthongs and vibrato machine-gun teases. Her voice is affected, sure, but there’s a contagious happiness about Christian’s playfulness within these constantly sad songs.
More than any window dressing (and that’s what Pandora Andrea Gastellum’s fanciful costumes appear to be fashioned from), the music made by Christian and her multitalented bandmates speaks for itself, even at its least disciplined.