Hook-laden compositions, quoting equally from ‘60s pop and ‘90s twee? Alternating singers and beautiful boy/girl harmonies? Carefully crafted songs that strike a perfect balance between catchy and wistful, melancholy and hopeful? It’s hard to fault the Essex Green’s components, sure, but haven’t we heard this sort of thing before? Many, many times? Couldn’t the same lines apply to plenty of actual ‘90s twee and indie-pop, as well as many of its forebears? Couldn’t they explain the promise of the Owls’ 2004 EP Our Hopes and Dreams? Couldn’t a slightly more rock-oriented variant thereof be applied to the New Pornographers?
But while the Essex Green’s new album, Cannibal Sea, probably isn’t going to surprise anyone with its stylistic decisions (especially not anyone familiar with their past work), it just might with the consistent quality of their application. This time around, each of Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell, and Chris Ziter’s songs concisely capture the best traits of the three-piece’s first two outings, packing in layers of backup vocals and instrumental builds where they’re needed, keeping the arrangements spare where it suits them. In fact, the entire album manages to come off without any stumbling points or bland moments over its 12 songs. And within their sound, the Essex Green manages enough variation to keep the tracks from running together.
The album opens with “This Isn’t Farm Life”, a jaunty keys-and-jangly-guitar affair that displays the pastoral overtones that help distinguish the Essex Green from their contemporaries a bit. Though Brooklyn-based, the band members originally hail from Burlington, Vermont, where they were part of the now-closed project Guppyboy, and the city/countryside tension, though kept relatively subtle, is a strong point in the Essex Green’s sound and songwriting. The theme comes out more on the album’s first “single” (yes, I’m taking the democratic buzz of the music blogs to be capable of nominating singles), “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”, with its rhythmic bass, quintessential (and flawless) Bell/Ziter chorus harmonies, and yearnings of escape from the concrete walls of New York from the opening lines of “Stepping along the hum of the sidewalk / a marionette, a slave” forward.
Tracks continue in a similar vein (and with similar quality) for a while before opening up into greater variety in the second half. “Rabbit” takes an acoustic folk approach, sounding like nothing so much as an adaptation of some forgotten sea shanty, lilting but mournfully subdued. “The Pride”, which may be the best track on all of Cannibal Sea, also lives up to that title through similarly nautical traces, with bits of Celtic motif and a slow build into an anthemic peak. Finally, “Elsinore” and “Uniform” succeed simply as solid up-tempo pop songs.
What we’re left with is an album that retreads a lot of familiar ground, but does it well, exploring a narrow but richly developed arc of ‘60s-influenced indie-pop. The Essex Green may not have too many surprises to offer, but their occasional folk inflections, excellent harmony arrangements on nearly every song, and consistently compelling imagery go a long way towards keeping them interesting nonetheless. And sometimes, surprises aren’t really what we want anyway. With an album as finely-wrought and comfortable as Cannibal Sea, I’m content with familiarity.