If Earlimart play a sad kind of music, and they mostly do, it’s still tempered by the blue California skies and the hopelessly optimistic West Coast aesthetic. It wasn’t always this way. Earlimart were once a chaotic bratty art-rock mess that imploded toward the end of 2001. Californian, sure, as their small town name signifies. But Earlimart (the sequel) is singer/guitarist Aaron Espinoza refusing to “turn out the lights”, as the press kit so lucidly puts it. Espinoza’s production work at the band’s own Ship studios—with the likes of Grandaddy, the Breeders and Elliott Smith—helped inform his approach to the newly resurrected Earlimart (Ariana Murray of Panty Lions, and Davey Latter of Stanford Prison Experiment both add keys, with the former also providing back-up vocals and bass, and the latter, drums) and is responsible for both January’s The Avenues EP and now the full length Everyone Down Here.
But be advised: “full length” is merely a relative term. The earlier, tantalizing EP clocked in at little over 12 minutes, while this follow-up is still only 32 plus change. Play them together and you’ll have a complete album, and enough material with which to judge what is essentially their Palm Pictures debut.
And in the sense that the main course rarely matches the anticipation of the appetizer (simply because of the slight dulling of hunger’s keen edge), Everyone Down Here is a dilution of sorts, but really only a whisper below the EP’s impact. The same odd-couple mix of distorted punk-rock and quirky low-key melancholia is present here, just stretched over three times the length.
From the moment the lost-child humming intro merges into the creepy wistfulness of “We’re So Happy (We Left the Piano in the Truck)”—guitars, drums, pretty harmonies, layered melodicism, faux Celtic pipes (?)—it’s immediately clear that we’re merely on the slow anticipatory uphill stretch of a rollercoaster ride of oddball unpredictability. Endearingly so. Even if rays of familiarity do occasionally pierce all this pretty gloom. “We Drink on the Job”, for example, is exuberantly (and strangely) similar to Broken Social Scene’s “Cause = Time” from the excellent You Forgot it in People; and “Burning the Cow” is an eerie exhumation of Marc Bolan (specifically, the T. Rex song known as “Get it On” in most nations not founded by Puritans, at least)—but only if he’d posthumously assimilated the Jesus and Mary Chain. Earlimart are not above revisiting themselves, either, with “Lazy Feet 23” echoing the building-crescendo orchestral gorgeousness of “Color Bars” (from The Avenues EP), like a slightly less charismatic sibling. Even the crackly disquiet of “Big Ol’ Black” suggests at least a subtle (and mercifully less terrorized) sideways glance toward Nick Drake’s frankly harrowing “Black Eyed Dog”.
None of this is to suggest a lack of originality. The brilliance here is in how these disparate echoes and influences, textures and hues, conscious or not, are woven into a magical rug that truly levitates and flaps away into the aching blue haze of a dry and stoic sky.
Espinoza’s studio time at the Ship has paid off. The clarity of the sounds, and their diversity, permeates this album, packing a lot into its short lifespan. Repeated spins bring out more buried bells and whistles each and every time. And the sense that this labour of love was a hermetic, deeply personal, adventure is compounded by the nautical imagery, giving the illusion of alternately riding lurching stormy swells and then floating in becalmed waters. “The Movies” is an example of the latter, with its piano-backed refrain of “Now we’re here lost at sea”; while, perversely, the actual song “Lost at Sea” is less than 90 seconds of overdriven, fuzzed-out punk rock, itself followed by a 25 second untitled tsunami blast of contorted feedback. Aimlessness and sudden intensity, these strange bedfellows, seem to be a feature of the “new” Earlimart, willfully parading their perversity like mismatched lovers.
As sad and even ominous some of these songs are—“Hospital”, for instance, is downright spooky in its apparent portrayal of poor mental health in pretty deep denial—Earlimart somehow manage to infuse most of them with something approaching barely-suppressed glee, or at least whimsy. In “We Drink on the Job”, their hands may be “sad” and their bones “tired as hell”, but still, “Ronnie’s got a few stories to tell”. And if not glee, defiance: “C’mon, c’mon, we’ll choke on the dust / But we won’t let ‘em get to us” (“Burning the Cow”). There’s a stubbornness, a refusal to idealize the past even in the face of an anxious future; we may “burn that town, . . . go to sleep, inside our dreams . . . [and] do our best”, but we won’t “look back, it’s just not that good” (“Lazy Feet 23”). However they face the flat and the featureless—the weary, parched landscape littered with tired desert towns, or the bigger lonelier ocean—the vast California blue of the encompassing sky overarches it all, and Earlimart seem to find some solace in that.