Laughing at the Trees

By Kevin Gibson

The progression of local mainstay 100 Acre Wood has been a gradual incline. From its first release, Fall, several years ago, to a self-titled EP in 1998, the band showed improvement in small, deliberate steps.

But following a recent name change, the band now known as Digby has taken a quantum leap with its latest release, Laughing at the Trees.

Kudos go to the production of Bob Rutherford and the obviously meticulous way in which Digby recorded this 10-song collection (at Midwest Audio in Bloomington, Ind.), for this represents the finest work this talented band has ever produced.

The improvements are too numerous to list, but suffice to say the songs are tighter and more focused than past recordings; usage of additional instruments adds texture and thickens the overall sound, and varied guitar effects not only enhance the talented playing of front man Paul Moeller and lead guitarist Rich Oeffinger, but also make this album sound, well, like a national release.

It helps that some of the best songs ever written by Moeller, including the emotive title track which leads off the CD, wound up on this disc. One that scores early points is "Wish I Had a Day Like That," a song that, if he were still alive, would make John Lennon absolutely sick with jealousy. The smoothness of the vocals and transitions from verse to chorus wonderfully complement the serenity of the lyric. Example: "A place where the skyscrapers are made of Jell-O/Where even the psychopaths are mello/and no one here is afraid to say hello/I wish I had a day like that."

"Ordinary Dog," penned by drummer Mark Book (although the band gets collaborative songwriting credit on all tunes), follows with a melodic, happy atmosphere, setting up the album's best track, "100% Free."

If there's a single recording on the disc that will garner major-label attention, it is "100% Free." When a drum sample starts things off, it's immediately clear the song is something special, and it proves to be just experimental enough to make it stand out from the rest. In fact, some well-chosen vocal effects and a chorus that's more infectious than the flu turn this into perhaps the most memorable four minutes and 43 seconds this band has ever recorded.

The latter half of the album slows just a tad, but is anchored by "Oprah," an ode to the well-known talk-show host and a live show favorite of the band and its fans. There's also the up-tempo, pure pop of "It Doesn't Matter." The song is a departure from what we've come to expect from this band, but provides yet another sign of how far the songwriting has branched out.

An accordion backdrop flavors the melancholy closer, "Couldn't Give it to You," which is one of the band's favorites (especially of bassist Ben Schneider).

So much for baby steps; Digby is in full stride. Best of all, this band is headed in the right direction, making it appear that the best is yet to come. It's scary to think what this quintet might accomplish.