[11 October 2010]
PopMatters Associate Events Editor
It’s only been two years since their first release, But These United States has just completed What Lasts, their fourth, and most thoughtful, album. On their debut, 2008’s A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden, the vocal chords of Jesse Elliott can be too-easily compared to M. Ward. And because much of the music on it is made up of effects and other sonically psychedelic ideas courtesy of Elliott’s collaboration with David Strackany (aka Paleo), it was less telling of what the future would bring for this band than it was an experiment of musical collaboration. Crimes, released the very same year, still reminisces of M. Ward’s vocals but moves further toward the folk-rock that the now full band has adopted. Their third album, Everything Touches Everything, was released only one year later and took on a more feel-good vibe. Though many were still wondering what direction the music would go, they seemed to be settling into their musical persona as a rock band with a sensitive side (that juvenile description captures them in their most raw form, of course). Elliott had stumbled upon his own voice, just as the band had found their sound.
With the release of What Lasts, it is more clear that they are not only settling into their place, but maturing as musicians as well. Inspired by a near-drowning experience of singer Jesse Elliott’s, the album is certainly a more somber undertaking than their previous work. Elliott has apparently taken inventory on his life and, as any artist would, has found comfort and solace in his writing.
The opening track, “Nobody Can Tell”, is a recall of Elliott’s first moments after the incident and the thoughts that befell him. His quivering voice and the band’s arrangement—through upswinging chord progressions and melody—circles his memories and counts his gratefulness for being alive and those he has to thank for being there: “I admit I miss my pops / And all the trash he talks / But if I make it back alive / I’m gonna give him all my thoughts”.
Three tracks later, “The Great Rivers” again references water, a running theme for the album, as Elliott finds himself alone and asking for company to walk along the river’s edge. Perhaps a realization that he is finally ready to tackle the uphill battle for love, the disc’s first single is easily the most catchy and radio-friendly while still adhering to the honesty that any fan (and reviewer) would hope for. For the entirety of the disc, though most noticeably on this track, J. Tom Hnatow’s steel guitar echoes Jerry Garcia’s use of the instrument on his work in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children”: it adds to the psychedelic while simultaneously keeping the melody grounded.
At the tail end of the album, the title track is a pained expression of time and moments passed that will hold you in your seat for the full 5:39, before the highway rocker “Water & Wheat” ends the disc with a note of perseverance.
To say that the members of These United States are workhorses is an understatement. To say they have evolved in these last two years is an even greater one. What Lasts is such a personal and heartfelt undertaking that it’s easy to feel a closeness to it. At times, Elliott’s propensity for wordiness jumbles what he is aiming to create: he cleverly circles around a point but only rarely drives it home. One point that is made clear, as cliché as it may be at this point, never seems to get old to those of us with some hope that the world is still a great place. It is sung throughout the disc, it slips through the cracks of the darkest moments, so that only one beam of light sneaks through the clouds: life is worth the fight.