[11 August 2008]

By Sara Hayes

Earlimart is one of those bands that—try as they might to rise above—seems to float under the radar of most listeners. This is a double-edged sword, of course; it may not mean commercial success, but often times, critical acclaim and a rabidly devoted core audience helps to soften the blow. On tour for their sixth album, Hymn and Her, the band has covered a lot of ground over the years—finding their sound, changing band members, the loss of a friend that inspired the absolute beauty of 2004’s Treble and Tremble, and the uncertainty/doubt that characterizes the music industry these days (Hymn and Her was released through the band’s own Majordomo Records). There have been highs and lows over the course of Earlimart’s career, for sure, but through all that, Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray have persevered—and the results are still something consistently compelling and inspiring.
Opening band JJL (featuring members of local Philly band Like a Fox) was reminiscent of both Grandaddy and Mercury Rev (even down to the lead singer’s voice, which was reminiscent of both Jason Lytle and Jonathan Donahue). Their set was a mix of lonesome folk and quirky, woodsy pop, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that they’d be right at home on the same bill as contemporaries like Sparklehorse, Prkr, and the Radar Bros. Next up was Sunshine Recorder, who also call Philadelphia home. While not as well-suited for the bill as JJL, lead singer Christopher Coello (of the Cobbs and Bottom of the Hudson) created a haze of atmospheric droning pop—all churning guitars, big bass lines, and fuzzy feedback—that treads on ground already covered by bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Then, finally, there was Earlimart. Playing for a small crowd in a room illuminated with the soft glow of white Christmas lights, the band led us through a tight set that covered both new and old material. There’s been a shift in momentum for the band since we last heard from them. Mentor Tormentor seemed to seethe with frustration both inwardly and outwardly (although subtly so) across all levels; with the new album, however, the focus has returned to lush, layered melody and hypnotic, swelling sounds. Now that the band functions primarily as a duo, albeit with a touring drummer, Aaron and Ariana’s presence on stage has become much more intuitive. They function as a seamless unit, with Aaron on lead guitar and Ariana handling both bass and keyboard duty, as well as backing vocals. The new album’s highlight, “God Loves You the Best”, with its stuttering drums and swirling melody is more spirited live. Songs like “Face Down in the Right Town” and “Nevermind the Phonecalls”, with its wistful harmonies and jangly guitars, have a new sense of urgency, anchored by an energetic Aaron (who bounced his way through almost every song as if he had his own electrical current) and his plaintive, whispery vocals. 

The band ended the evening with two of my favorite songs, one old and one new. The gorgeous and little known “Color Bars” can be found on 2003’s excellent The Avenues EP. With its slow, deliberate melody and tension-filled build to the chorus, the song is one of the best in the band’s oeuvre. The piano-based “Happy Alone” finds Ariana singing lead for one of the first times in Earlimart’s recent history. The last two albums have seen Ariana contributing in both songwriting and vocals, and I’m definitely a fan, as her contributions add a new depth to the band’s sound. Where Aaron’s vocals are often fragile and airy, Ariana’s voice is luminous and husky and bruised all at the same time. When mixed with a bouncing melody and lyrics full of longing, the results border on magical.
With Hymn and Her, Earlimart seem to be heading in a new direction—one that embraces the lows and the journey back up. It’s a bittersweet trip, more often than not, and it’s one that we all encounter daily—but it can’t be that bad when we’ve got music as beautiful and poignant as this to serve as a soundtrack.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/earlimart/