A lot of bands are never-weres and don’t deserve it. The reasons why some bands “make it” and some don’t were every bit as elusive and various in the early 1990’s as they are today. It often doesn’t have a single thing to do with talent. Management problems, intra-band discord, problems with their label, poor marketing, and changing tastes are a partial list of potential culprits and there’s more.
The Chillbumps are never-weres. If music were a meritocracy, they may not have held together for another thirty years and stand on the cusp of Rock Hall enshrinement, but they would have enjoyed one success after another over that span. Alas. They delivered one unequivocally great album, however, a thirty-plus minute long shout-out to eternity that, yeah, The Chillbumps were here. Welcome to Our Arbor Day Fair still stands thirty-one years after its recording even if The Chillbumps do not.
“Happy Bass Riff” should have been, could have been, a hit. The Chillbumps can hang their collective hats on one hook, if nothing else, that would have commanded major airplay in early 1992 and, with the right video, catapulted the band to another level. I kept waiting for a lull to hit, but it never happened. The band’s two guitarists Heath Cobb and Mark Osborne are stand outs here, as elsewhere, but the undoubted highlight is Niebuhr and drummer Tim Bryant’s teaming in the band’s rhythm section.
“Alice” cooks up a hard and steady musical charge from the beginning that suits its storytelling inclinations. Vocalist David Borel delivers a loose and confident performance, one of many, and it’s easy to see that the chemistry shared between the musicians and their lead singer was a consistent strength for The Chillbumps. “Lost and Found” has several excellent qualities and a perhaps surprising amount of daring for a college rock band of the time. Cobb and Osborne definitely light the composition up with explosive six-string fireworks. It’s never gratuitous, however.
The daring passages come in the song’s second half when the band stretches out. It meanders a bit here, the song is the album’s longest at over four minutes, but don’t take this as harsh criticism. The ideas are there, but perhaps not harnessed quite right. It’s still one of the album’s most memorable moments and for the right reasons. The second half of the album has a decidedly rockier bent than the comparatively diverse first and leans on straight-forward college rockers with a post-punk/English bent.
“Lisbon Trees” is the best of those. The Chillbumps’ lyrics are an underrated part of their overall package and the details incorporated into this track are an example of their finest work in that area. Osborne and Cobb’s guitar play shines once again. The band takes a final foray into riskier stylistic areas with the last song “Human Race”. It’s skewed pop song theatrics with melody never far away but warped with a playfulness heard elsewhere on the release. One of the most important aspects of the band’s music and one that likely made them a popular live act during their initial run is the sheer joy they communicate playing, no matter the subject matter. It’s always there, maybe below the surface, but ever present throughout Welcome to Our Arbor Day Fair.