A Letter from TreeTops

Pneumatic Tubes

As keyboards and woodwind man for Midlake and Mercury Rev, American musician Jesse Chandler might not seem the most obvious fit for Ghost Box’s hauntological/esoteric/wonky oeuvre. But once you delve into ‘A Letter From TreeTops’ – Chandler’s debut album as Pneumatic Tubes – its quintessential ‘otherness’ becomes abundantly clear.

Taking its title from a fondly-remembered summer camp, and composed after his father’s death, these sepia-tinged vignettes find him reflecting on his youth, growing up in the wilds of New York’s Adirondack and Catskill mountains. Steeped in “ambient/cosmik psychjazzz” (Chandler’s words), 1960s neo-psych and exotica, ‘A Letter From TreeTops’ is a beguilingly languid and intoxicating listen.

Standout tracks include ‘Camp Sunfrost’, with soft, all-enveloping oscillations that feel like basking in the warmth of a summer sun, and the poignant ‘Witch Water’, featuring Marissa Nadler’s haunting voice as its backdrop. Best of all, the tremolo-heavy ‘Magic Meadow’ evokes the pure childlike aura of running free outdoors without a care in the world. Absolutely gorgeous.

Velimir Ilic
Electronic Sound

Nostalgia, that dream-like grasping for something that refuses to be present, is simply a sense of ending taken at a different speed. It’s the slowing down of memory, which in itself remains an unconscious refusal to let go of the past. Each track on this solo project from Jesse Chandler of Mercury Rev and Midlake seems to come most alive in its concluding moments. “Summer’s Children”, the album’s opener, sounding like the title theme for some lost kid’s TV drama, freezes itself into the memory by suddenly halting with an abrupt metallic reverberation.

By contrast, “Slow Fawns” fades gently away on a long, sustained pulsing tone. As a personal searching of memory, A Letter From TreeTops is filled with such final moments. The bulk of the material was recorded by Chandler while he was staying alone in the family’s summer home in upstate New York following his father’s death. The titles alone evoke a lingering farewell to childhood days: “Overlook Mountain House”, “Summer’s End”, “Mumbly Peg”. Chandler uses keyboards and woodwind to full nostalgic effect, every tone hinting at some keenly felt absence. It is interesting to note in this respect that the pneumatic tubes of his alias refer not only to the flute and clarinet arrangements that haunt the entire album but also to an obsolete form of postal communication by which letters and notes were sent round offices, shops and even entire cities.

There is also a lovely sense of drama in the way the tracks have been sequenced, each one contrasting with or extending the mood of what came before. This letter changes mood with every paragraph. “Summer’s Children” is immediately followed by “Joyous Lake”, a spiralling, ascending study for keyboards held together by the crisp snare work of Bill Campbell on drums. “TreeTops” has a classical raga feel to it, while “The Big Deep” is all synthesizer murk and distant sonar tones. “Witch Water” benefits from the gentle keening of singer Marissa Nadler, which is then offset by the jangling, echoing guitars on “Magic Meadow”, courtesy of Paul Alexander and Robert Gomez, bringing a welcome adolescent tartness to this particular soundscape.

Packaged and presented with the dreamy thoroughness that has become a Ghost Box hallmark, A Letter From TreeTops is worth reading and rereading, especially over the bleak early months of 2022.

Ken Hollings

Jesse Chandler’s solo debut was constructed following his father’s death after he hauled various synths and the woodwind instruments he’s wielded for others — those titular “pneumatic Tubes” — to an empty family home. There’s consequently a nostalgic quality to this which sits between the kosmiche and the New Age, with “Saw Teeth” tracing busy, almost prog-like lines of bubbling arpeggios and “Slow Fawns” significantly more reflective, its flutes rising over sedated, Satie-like chords. Retro though it is, it’s an affecting mix, especially on “Joyous Lake”, whose placid arrangement recalls Eno’s “Two Rapid Formations” from Music For Films.

Wyndham Wallace

On his debut LP as Pneumatic Tubes, Jesse Chandler (Midlake, Mercury Rev) pays homage to his late father and the mountains over which they bonded. A Letter From TreeTops (the name of a beloved summer camp) blurs the boundaries between Super 8 movies and mystical journeys. It’s a collection of sonic Polaroids with soothing powers, so entirely and genuinely personal it ends up speaking to (and of) universal feelings. Musically, the album offers plenty of wide-eyed library-imbued warmth (`Slow Fawns’) and hauntological escapism (‘The Big Deep’, beguiling highlight ‘Witch Water’, featuring Marissa Nadler on supernatural vocals) – at times, like on ‘Camp Sunfrost’, the two intertwine in a most magnetic way. As the songs follow one another, the Adirondacks and Catskills come to Fife before our eyes with the eerie stillness of memories turned reveries. The woodwinds and keyboards we hear belong to another time, and possibly another world. A quiet triumph.

Camilla Aisa

An album with its own secret geography, A Letter from TreeTops finds Woodstock-born Jesse Chandler perfectly at home on Ghost Box Records
In the last years of his life, Dave Chandler worked up the courage to introduce himself to Michael Lang, the Woodstock festival organiser, in a coffee shop. Chandler shook Lang’s hand and thanked him for such a seminal experience in his young adulthood. Another formative event in Chandler’s early life was attending the Treetops summer camp in New York State. After the death of Dave Chandler in 2018, his son Jesse began writing music inspired by his father’s youthful escapades among the cascades and mountains.

Ghost Box Records, with its yen for narratives linked by mystery and loss, is a perfect fit for Chandler, who records under the name Pneumatic Tubes. (He also plays keys and flutes for Midlake and Mercury Rev). A Letter from TreeTops feels less about romantic or falsified assumptions of the past, and more about memory as a sensory store. To achieve this, Chandler has used the soulful glow of vintage keyboards and mixed in the mythic resonance of woodwind. His melodies rise like incense through fresh mountain air, or float contentedly upstream. Sorrow and euphoria fill the verdant dreams of each passing scene. Beyond the obvious Ghost Box labelmate comparisons, we listeners might factor in the likes of Szun Waves, Laurence Pike, Sharron Kraus and Hannah Peel.

Opening track “Summer’s Children” has the breezy innocence of a Virginia Astley piece in its enchanted sweet melody. “Joyous Lake” adds gently profound beats to some wistful and peaceful electronica, while the raga swirls and giddy piano on “TreeTops” evoke childhood hangouts as more like shrines than dens. Already this could be the soundtrack for a manga folktale, or equally some rugged soul-quest.

“The Big Deep” enters a cerebral keyboard haze with a disturbing sense of loneliness and a touch of dreampunk. Next up, “Mumbly-Peg” takes its name from an old outdoor game played using pocketknives, which might not pass health and safety laws today. Musically it’s a glowing forest coloured by clarinet, subtle oscillations, woodland percussion and trance rapture. Avant-jazz waves on “Camp Sunfrost” conjure the perfumes of morning, huddled by a makeshift fire. Then there’s playful squidgy synths on “Saw Teeth” and the shadowy waltz of “Witch Water”. The chiming “Slow Fawns” has a weightless drift, whilst on “Magic Meadow” guitars echo and rustle in slow flashback over sacred Mellotron chords. And finally, “Summer’s End” is a lush closing reverie to Chandler’s search for magic mementos in a cynical world.

Gareth Thompson
Concrete Islands

Blissful electro-psych from Mercury Rev keys and wind guy.

Pneumatic Tubes is multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler, keyboard and woodwind player for Midlake and Mercury Rev. While drawing on the same pool of mystic, psychedelic Americana as those groups, A Letter From TreeTops is an instrumental paean to the wilds of upstate New York where Chandler grew up, that sits somewhere between the rural kosmische of Cluster and the electro nostalgia of Boards Of Canada. Yet while much of this music has a sun-dappled, magic hour feel to it, it’s grounded by a hint of melancholy, with the album recorded shortly after the death of Chandler’s father.

“Joyous Lake” sets the tone, a delicate weaving of vintage keys against Moog, bass and the slow beat of a tom, a warm bath of organic electronica as bluesky clouds roll overhead. The luminous drift of “The Big Deep” voyages further out into space, like reimagined music for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, while the primitive drum machine and radiophonic waves of “Mumbly-Peg” are soothed by gentle clarinet. The slightly manic robot disco of Saw Teeth introduces a sudden change of pace, but the chiming folk guitar and super mellow flute of “Witch Water” restores the beatific vibe.

Joe Banks

Ghost Box continue their run of deeply nostalgic, yet otherworldly records with the introduciton of the first Pneumatic Tubes LP. It’s always interesting to see a new band woven into the stable, especially in a label whose aesthetics are so deeply ingrained into its being, but Pneumatic Tubes, the chosen moniker for Jesse Chandler (Midlake, Mercury Rev) steps ably up to the psychedelic synth task at hand. The record was recorded in the wake of the death of Chandler’s father, an almost immediate reaction to the loss. Chandler composed the suite in his childhood home, echoing feelings of nostalgia for the Adirondaks and Catskills, naming the album after a childhood summer camp that played host to multiple generations of his family. Fusing synth with gorgeous washes of flute and clarinet, the record pushes beyond Library aesthetics and into a deeper kosmiche synth journey, feeling like it could soundtrack nature films and Omni documentaries at the same time.

Despite the summer source material, the record skews rather Autumnal and pastoral. There’s a slight chill in the air, though in a record about loss the pang of change can’t help but sprout under the surface. There’s a clarity present in A Letter From TreeTops. The feeling of looking backward and forward simultaneously that can come with taking stock in the wake of upheval. There’s sadness, sure, but moreso there’s hope, peace, and a verdant sense of wonder. With a few friends on board to help flesh out the pieces he’d written, including Marissa Nadler on vocals and members of Midlake and the Robert Gomez Trio, Chandler adds a record of mercurial beauty to the GB stable.

Andy French
Raven Sings the Blues

Pneumatic Tubes is subdued and sublime. Its music writ small, gentle grooves imbued with just the right level of controlled emotion. It’s a place where new age cosmic stargazing meets motorik hypnotism. It’s folk music for the soul. It feels full of wonder. There is a joy in the playing, in the very act of playing and it translates into the music, and the listening. Genre wise I don’t know what I’m listening to and it doesn’t seem to matter. There are definite elements of folk, but they feel butted up with elements like free jazz, and these disparate elements working together spread across the album – and the confounding is beautiful. As I listened my notes were ‘baroque, New Age, indie folk, ambient psychedelia, and English pastoral’ – which is kind’ve laughable because it’s the debut album of Jesse Chandler who’s from Upstate New York near Woodstock. He’s previously played with Midlake and Mercury Rev – but not like this.

It follows the death of his father and is the result of playing for playing’s sake. It’s so fascinating how this gentle instrumental music fits so perfectly within the Ghost Box aesthetic, because the music feels aged yet timeless, imbued with an earnest melancholia. My favourite element of this music is the woodwind, which despite being regularly submerged amongst other instrumentation adds an unmistakable texture.

Chandler has dedicated this album to his father and the ‘mystical mountains of the mind, in which we all reside,’ and there’s no doubt there is something elusive and mysterious about this music.

Whilst he plays keyboards and woodwind, he’s joined by Paul Alexander of Midlake on bass, Bill Campbell (Breastfist) on drums, occasional vocals from Marissa Nadler (I honestly can’t remember hearing them) and electric guitar from Robert Gomez (John Grant). It doesn’t feel like music from a band. This is highly personal, highly emotional music. It feels that simply by listening you are capturing a small piece of his soul.

Bob Baker Fish
Cyclic Defrost

Pneumatic Tubes è il progetto solista di Jesse Chandler, polistrumentista newyorkese che vanta collaborazioni – a tastiere e fiati – con Midlake e Mercury Rev. Il suo album di debutto contiene dodici brani realizzati con Paul Alexander (basso), Bill Campbell (batteria), Marissa Nadler (voce) e Robert Gomez (chitarra elettrica). Ascoltare le risonanze delle tracce è come sfogliare vecchi album fotografici nel silenzio della messa a fuoco di ogni momento: “Summer’s Children” apre il percorso meditativo tra svolazzi melodici di flauti e delicate trame di tastiere, quindi gli accenni ritmici di “Joyous Lake”, i loop insi-stiti di piano che in TreeTops inseguono le suggestioni dell’infanzia trascorsa in un campo estivo. La discesa nei meandri della mente dove i brani toccano momenti di inquietudine, oscurità e dolore (“The Big Deep”) ma anche brio e giocosità (“Mumbly Peg”) ogni traccia è pregna di un confortevole sapore agrodolce fino alla chiusura dell’album dei ricordi “Summer’s End”. “A Letter From TreeTops” è un disco in cui è quasi naturale riconoscersi, durante l’ascolto capita spesso di scivolare nel vuoto di nebulose reminiscenze: Jesse ha scritto lo spartito perfetto per confortare un’assenza con un supporto emotivo complementare. Non è musica ambient, ma una concertazione di elementi sonori toccanti,psichedelici, bucolici, avant-jazz, elettronici e tanto altro – autentica musica per l’anima.

Pneumatic Tubes is the solo project of Jesse Chandler, a New York multi-instrumentalist who plays with Midlake and Mercury Rev on keyboards and winds. His debut album contains twelve songs made with Paul Alexander (bass), Bill Campbell (drums), Marissa Nadler (vocals) and Robert Gomez (electric guitar). Listening to the resonances of the tracks is like leafing through old photo albums, with the silence and focus of each preserved moment: “Summer’s Children” opens the meditative path with melodic flute flourishes and delicate keyboard textures, then the rhythmic loops of “Joyous Lake” builds on “TreeTop’s” evocation of childhood days in summer camps. The songs descend into the meanders of the mind, touching on moments of restlessness, darkness and pain (“The Big Deep”) but also liveliness and playfulness (“Mumbly Peg”). Each track is filled with a comfortable, bittersweet flavour, until the album closes with the memories of “Summer’s End”. “A Letter From TreeTops” is a record in which, while listening, one finds oneself often slipping into the void of nebulous reminiscences. Jesse wrote the perfect score for consoling a sense of absence with emotional tenderness. It is not ambient music, but touches on sound elements that are psychedelic, bucolic, avant-jazz, electronic and much more – authentic music for the soul.

Salvo Pinzone
Blow Up