[9 October 2007]
Ever heard of Earlimart? Maybe not. But the Los Angeles-based team of Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray have been at it for quite some time, and Mentor Tormentor is in fact Earlimart’s fifth album. It has been nearly a decade since their first album was released in 1999, although it is only with their two most recent albums that the duo have really gained popularity and widespread appeal in the indie-rock world and it’s about time. Throughout their career, Earlimart’s music has been compared to everything, from Built to Spill to Sonic Youth to Grandaddy. Nearly every review of Earlimart’s 2004 LP, Treble & Tremble, compared the disc to the repertoire of alternative music’s departed hero, Elliott Smith. Some called the album a disc that too nearly reflected Smith’s sound, while others considered the similarities a direct tribute the musician and man that so influences Earlimart’s music and life.
Mentor Tormentor also contains bold reflections of Smith with its hushed, tragic vocals, themes of anguish, and an often melancholy view of the world. But however obvious Smith’s influence is, it would be a discredit to Earlimart’s accomplishments to act as if their newest disc is merely a recreation of Treble & Tremble, or of any of Smith’s work. Mentor Tormentor stands as an independent work of art superior to any previous Earlimart album and a true testament to the developed songwriting abilities of Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray.
While most of the writing is done by Espinoza, Murray takes the lead on “Happy Alone”. Plodding piano chords are teamed up with static strings in the background to create a quietly affecting piece of surprising profundity. Murray sings:“The shadows of doubt on how things turn out are typically grey/But even the stopped clock on the wall is right two times a day.” A strange sort of beauty emerges out of deceptively simple harmonies; the emotions evoked here are actually quite complex. While all of Earlimart’s music is gorgeous, at times the loveliness can become redundant, but Murray’s voice adds wonderful nuance to the album’s sound.
Though Earlimart’s albums have always been solidly put together, the most apparent strength of Mentor Tormentor is an overwhelming sense of purpose in the duo’s songwriting. As time goes by in musical history and it becomes more and more difficult to innovate and present creative ideas, many artists turn to messes of sound, electronic beats, or tangles of effects and meaningless ideas. This album is reassuring in its earnestness, building meaningful music out of the simplest of pop structures and instrumentation. With so much modern music being either a self-centered statement trying to prove something or a product meant to be consumed, Espinoza and Murray show true respect for music as an art meant to be expressive.
On “The World”, the disc’s most melancholy cut, verses peak and die away as we hear “the world has overshadowed me” above rich, swelling piano. “Answers and Questions” features a chorus of thick, angsty strings. Often times music like Earlimart’s, with its tragic verses and pained choruses, gets labeled as overly sentimental. But Mentor Tormentor is lovely in that it is a balanced album in terms of style and tone, never verging too far into the sickeningly sweet. Their sound is uncharacteristically heavy on “Everybody Knows Everybody”, with pounding drums and a quicker tempo, and the closing “Cold Cold Heaven” is surprisingly upbeat, complete with claps and a full choir joining in for the ending chorus.
Kudos to Earlimart for a lovely and cohesive disc which, through carefully constructed phrases full of direction and intent, proves them to be one of indie’s most underrated acts.