[21 May 2003]
The Elephant Six Collective are like those super smart, witty, talented but eccentric friends we all have. The kind of friends that you love to hang out with one on one, but don’t want around for a big night out on the town because you know they would embarrass you in public. For every wonderful song or album the Elephant Six churns out, there are the songs about bumblebees and Powerpuff Girls to make your cheeks red. Fortunately, the brilliance of Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples In Stereo or the Circulatory System make it worth the risk that someone will hear you listening to songs whose themes seem better suited for kindergartners.
For those who don’t want to risk the embarrassment, there are the more straightforward Elephant Sixers like the Minders, Ladybug Transistor, Beulah, and the Essex Green. Eschewing the fascination with children’s themes and fairies, those bands still share the Collectives’ penchant for combining irresistible pop melodies with acid fried psychedelica.
The Essex Green’s debut album Everything is Green was a fantastic display of ‘60s pop-psych-folk homage. Since then, the trio (made up of Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell, and Chris Ziter) has left Vermont for Brooklyn, and Kindercore Records for Merge. In between, they morphed into their Band- loving alter ego the Sixth Great Lake to release one album, Up The Country. Having left their rural surroundings for the big city, and playing out their mountain-folk urges, one could only wonder at what changes the move to the big city might produce. Since the Essex Green, like most of their Elephant Six counterparts, deny the existence of the last 30 years of music, you could be sure they were not headed towards the ‘80s disco and new wave revival currently streaming out of Brooklyn. Perhaps an album inspired by the Velvet Underground or a young Bob Dylan would be the obvious next step for the Essex Green. Maybe even a foray into the folk ground stomped out by early New Yorkers like the Fuggs? Even the title of their new album The Long Goodbye suggests that the band is ready to open a new chapter in their lives.
Yet, on The Long Goodbye, the Essex Green are intent on proving that you can take the band out of the country side, but not the country side out of the band or something like that. Starting with the infectious “By the Sea”, the Green treat us to a flute loop and guitar break that would have Austin Powers get his shag on. Sasha Bell’s pristine voice makes the song more Belle and Sebastian than Monkees, as they prove to be one of the bands strong suites. A drum roll and handclaps usher in “The Late Great Cassiopia”, which features Bell and Ziter trading choral harmonies on a Velvet Undrground-lite track. The bass steals the show giving the song enough bounce to make you shake your tail feathers. The third track, “Our Lady in Havana”, starts off sounding like the theme song to a mid-‘70s New York cop drama like Hill Street Blues, before giving way to Doors-influenced organ break.
Three songs into an excellent album, the Green suddenly remembers Vermont as the mid-west and the bottom begins to fall out. Like those friends, just when everyone thinks they’re down, they go and bring up something like the mating habits of fruit flies to maintain their individuality. “Lazy May” is a rolling country number that sounds like they are trying to cash in on the O Brother Where Art Thou phenomenon. They then head into Byrds’ territory on “Southern States”, proving that this is not the style they do best. Things do look up on “Julia”, as they slow things down, and let the Bell and Ziters fantastic vocal trade-off carry the song. Rather than sounding like a country song being attempted by a pop-band, it sounds like a pop-song with country leanings, and the results are much better. Then they go and throw in “Old Dominion”, a mostly instrumental track that sounds like the part of the soundtrack in old Westerns when they show the heroes riding through the desert with buttes and cactuses in the background.
Finally, saving the remainder of the album, the Essex Green return to their ‘70s pop style on “Sorry River”. “Chartiers” is a wonderful pop song, with soaring vocals and a shimmering keyboard that demonstrates the heights that the Essex Green is capable of achieving. The album ends on an up note, the stirring string section that backs “Whetherman”.
As a transitory album The Long Goodbye is uneven. The Essex Green was supposed to have gotten all their country yearnings out of their system when they formed the Sixth Great Lake. For a band that is capable of ripping off such catchy pop numbers, they make a terrible country act. They have two excellent vocalists in Bell and Ziter, and they all know how to play their instruments. Even better is their knack for knowing how to arrange a catchy, but diverse number in less than three minutes. Essex Green should embrace the pavement beneath their feet, the taxis on the corner, the sounds that are making the kids shuffle this way and that, instead of falling back on the smells of the cow pastures back home. If they can remember that more pop, more organs, more boogie are better than more banjo and more fiddles, they could emerge as one of the best Elephant Six bands.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/essexgreen-long/