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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2009

Old Earth’s Songs from a Haunted House

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­Todd Umhoefer was house-sitting for his parents while they were in Florida last year when he learned that his mother had died. He spent the next day in that house, trying to make sense of the news. He wasn't handling it well.

"I didn't have anybody to talk to," he recalls. "For a day I was just wandering around alone, frantic, in this house where I grew up. And suddenly everything in the house had this massive significance it didn't have before. Every object had these intense memories associated with them, but now this absence had been created."

His nerves shattered, his thoughts unhealthy, Umhoefer began writing songs to calm himself. They came faster than usual.

"The words just started coming," he says. "The whole situation really leveled me, and left me feeling so hollow, but at least I was able to throw some language at it and begin sorting things out."

Those songs and others written in the lonely aftermath of his mom's death form the bulk of Umhoefer's latest album, Out the spheres of The Sorrowful Mysteries, his first as Old Earth. Under his previous moniker, See the People, Umhoefer had for years been a regular at Milwaukee open mics and house shows, where he'd occasionally cover some of the old American folk songs that inspired his own.

While traditional folk remains the foundation of Umhoefer's music, Old Earth also draws heavily from the transcendental, lo-fi bedroom folk of Mount Eerie's Phil Elverum, where the mysteries of nature and the cosmos are suggested through creaky, cavernous production. With his reedy voice, Umhoefer sings sparingly and in concise, simple sentiments, letting the guitars and reverb carry the narrative for him.

Like most of Elverum's work, The Sorrowful Mysteries suggests a man in limbo pitted against the elements, but where Elverum's colossal journey has spanned the highest mountains and the outer reaches of the universe, Umhoefer's is grounded in his childhood home, its bricks, its rafters and its silent ghosts.

The album isn't as sober as its back story suggests, though. Umhoefer sounds more bewildered than devastated by death, and his bright guitar work hints at hope beyond the metaphorical dark woods about which he sometimes sings.

"I wanted to try to force myself to take away whatever positive angles I could from the situation," Umhoefer explains, a process he details on the record.

"I'll make a list of all the good things," Umhoefer sings on "Therial Errand," backed by a small chorus of some of the friends who helped him record the album. The promise is repeated over and over but, perhaps tellingly, the actual list is never shared.

Albums shaped by death tend to end with some sort of take-away message, but The Sorrowful Mysteries offers no such resolution. It ends where it was conceived, in a childhood home forever changed.

"Call it a blessing, call it a chore," Umhoefer sings on the closing track. "This house, this strange house."

Old Earth plays a CD-release show on Friday, Sept. 4, at Linneman's with Conrad Plymouth, Golden Coins, Jay Flash and Flojo. The $5 cover includes a copy of the album, which will also be offered for free download at virb.com/oldearth following the show.

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