Monday, March 29, 2010

The Essex Green: Cannibal Sea (2006)

(Merge Records)

We inaugurate this blog with a band I didn't even know existed 24 hours ago. Stranger yet, the Essex Green is (or was; they haven't made much noise lately) part of the Elephant 6 collective. I assume everyone here reading this knows that E6 was the beginning of much of the most interesting pop music of the last fifteen years, from the sunny darkness of the Apples in Stereo to the dark sunniness of Neutral Milk Hotel to the what the fuck ever of Olivia Tremor Control to my beloved Beulah to the confounding Secret Square to the still-snowballing Of Montreal, etc. It turns out, glancing at the Wikipedia box covering the Collective, that there are more bands in the E6 Recording Co. than I ever realized, including something called Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't. If they are in fact an institution and my unawareness of Pipes You See, Pipes You Don't renders my short-lived attempt at music blogging moot and worthless, I submit apologies.

This particular band was brought to my attention by, which -- ta-da -- I am on and use regularly. I combed through about five pages of recommendations out of curiosity last night and, after a few dozen inane robotic insights like "If You Like The Beatles, You May Also Enjoy George Harrison," this was the second band I saw that I either don't already listen to or wouldn't prefer never to hear again. Seeing that they are an Elephant 6 band that later signed to Merge, one of the best record labels in the galaxy, I couldn't imagine it would be a loser.

It really isn't, either, but it's also less distinctive than I let myself expect. The album runs about forty minutes and covers a good number of stylistic exercises in that period, enough to prove that the band is/was very eclectic. If Antietam was the South's Yo La Tengo, I guess the Essex Green might make a claim as Brooklyn's, if Brooklyn isn't close enough to Hoboken for it not to matter. The bulk of the songs have something of a humdrum folk-rock sound, vocals passed between the obligatory twangy girl (Sasha Bell) and wheezy boy (Christopher Ziter), both reasonably able. The album opener "This Isn't Farmlife" may pass too far over the folk/country-rock line, and a few others fall in line, as though they are song factory recordings handed down over generations to an indie rock act. "Sin City" and closing "Slop Song" are the best of the folk material, the former suggesting Phil Spector in charge of a country session, the latter just hitting a perfect note of ethereal beauty.

But on the four most experimental cuts on the album, the Essex Green prove they have great potential. I've attached MP3s of two of these; listen to the astonishing wall of vocals on "Cardinal Points" -- calling to mind the Free Design as much as the Beach Boys, with a smattering of the Rivieras somewhere in the background -- and that tremendous reverb sound on "Snakes in the Grass," an intoxicating hybrid of old and new that ought to make She & Him and Camera Obscura jealous if they ever hear it. These songs plus the obvious single (even if it wasn't the single, and for all I know it wasn't) "Don't Know Why (You Stay)," perfect pop, and "Rue de Lis," a delightful Fairport Convention-ish dash through Eurofolk, make this album worth hearing and the Essex Green a noteworthy act.

They don't sustain that invention or energy for all of this record, but I've already listened to those four songs twice and they've pretty well captured my heart. Maybe when this band comes back, and I hope they do, they can move in the direction of either the wildly divergent "Cardinal Points" or the appealing integration of weirdness and folk in the other three standout cuts here, in which case they'd be really intriguing and a definite band to watch. Alas, the band began working in 1997, lending equal credence to the notion that this actually marked a retreat away from experimentation. I'm not sure whether I'm curious enough yet to delve into their past. If you're familiar with their older recordings, feel free to comment. If you're like me and this is all news to you, check out these two MP3s. And if you dig them, buy the others from Merge, because they're a seriously awesome label and they deserve your cash.

Snakes in the Grass
Cardinal Points

:) Nathan

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