Locals Only: Arlo & the Otter

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From the Locals Only: Arlo & the Otter edition
Last May, with his bashful folk-pop band Our Cat Philip in the process of dissolving, Ohio State undergrad Max Sollisch sought solace by resuming Arlo & the Otter, a long-dormant teenage songwriting partnership with his stepbrother, Jason Kluk-Barany.

Fresh out of Syracuse, Kluk-Barany relocated to Columbus just long enough to catch his breath before the duo hit the road in a two-door Honda Civic.

"We booked the whole tour before we ever got to rehearse," Sollisch said.

Before the brothers skipped town, they got down to business, moving away from Our Cat Philip's traditional pop structures. Inspired by a mutual love for experimental rockers Akron/Family, they discarded the verse-chorus-verse approach and began thinking of music as a free-flowing series of movements.

The goal was not to flee from the gentle, melodic twee that had been Sollisch's specialty, but to eliminate all creative boundaries and wander to their hearts' content.

"It feels a little more free," Sollisch explained. "We didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves."

The resulting self-titled record, to be released this spring by Dublin, Ireland-based online label Indiecater, is indeed tough to pin down.

Many moments could pass for Our Cat Philip, such as the boisterous Bright Eyes-inspired pop of "Passing Lane" and the whispery string of slow jams that comprise the bulk of the record's first half.

But the album begins by eradicating any doubt that this is a distinct project. The Our Cat Philip song "Infinite," originally composed by Arlo & the Otter years ago, leads off Arlo's album in drastically reworked form. A tune that used to resemble Belle and Sebastian's jaunty, effeminate early works has been converted into a creeping composition marked by jazzy drums, startling growls and a free-form noise freakout.

"Infinite" bleeds into "You Do Not Exist (The Way They Say You Do)," a foreboding post-rock platter that eventually seethes and surges into oblivion. Shades of prog rock and free jazz rear their heads again on tracks like "Naked" and "Ode to Burdens." Grand finale "Found" finds them applying Sollisch's pop songwriting touch to twangy Southern rock.

It's an arresting album, but the band wasn't able to fully realize such an ambitious vision on stage as a duo, so they've been accumulating members. Former Blastronaut Pat O'Neil joined the fold for one tour but later bowed out. Trains Across the Sea fiddler Adrian Jusdanis joined in time to appear on the album.

More recently, pianist Jim Stehli of The Neighbors signed to share the songwriting load with Sollisch on future releases.

"I've always liked where he's coming from lyrically," Sollisch said. "And he's, like, Dane Terry-good at piano."

Stehli jumped in just in time to play Arlo's album release show next Thursday at Cafe Bourbon Street with Saintseneca and Indianapolis act Accordions. It's also the launch of an East Coast tour that includes stops at long-running Boston radio show "Live from the Fallout Shelter" and New York anti-folk haven Sidewalk Cafe.

E-mail your local music news to Chris DeVille at cdeville@columbusalive.com