In 2004, NME gave their album a 9, but decreed their members too ugly to depict; their debut remains a weird and wonderful Earlies ticket to future sights unseen.
"...Th[is] Texan/UK collective took Californian harmonies, free jazz, electronica, folk and Heideggerian philosophy and somehow made them collage into a lysergic, playful and deeply enjoyable whole.
-- from my 2004 round-up
The prospect of reviewing an album I'd first become enamored with over a year and a half ago struck attractive sparks off my curiosity, I have to admit. I think everyone has a friend who goes through musical phases and discoveries like a flirtacious chainsaw, amassing a wake of butchered popular acts, an intimidatingly large record collection and a wryly bemused circle of acquaintances who've gradually acclimatised to an atmosphere of constantly changing recommendation currents as likely to bear strange fashionable fruit half a year down the line as to enclose bizarrely unlistenable groups who promptly disappear without a trace.
As the gleaming blade of your perceptiveness will doubtless have snagged by now, dear reader, in my circle of friends it is I who fulfil this role, half cultist prophet, half amiably obsessive glutton with ADD, and The Earlies duly served their turn as source of spontaneous delight, subsequent fevered evangelism, and the habitual diminishing returns from both harassed friends and the wider public. Returning to the album now brings its deficiencies into slightly harsher focus, but the moments of magical potential survive: that rare but invaluable "this is one of the greatest things in the world!" feeling (to paraphrase my one Earlies convert) is sprinkled liberally over a decent percentage of the songs here. True, the lustre of those timeless instants is offset by tracks that tend to meander for longer than their slow development would seem to warrant, and some of the songs are little more than pleasant, logical routes in the album's progression from one proper landmark composition to another. Lyrically, too, The Earlies reside in a charming but puzzlingly hazy province skirted by romantic mystery, whimsy, strangeness and obtusity.
The epithet "bucolic" comes to mind.
Aesthetically these chaps are also a bit of an enigma; if you're sufficiently Catholic to feel soothed by the pleading recurring motif "Mother Mary, take me home" you're likely to be slightly perturbed by the opening lines of "The Devil's Country", when the singer strides out from amongst deep tribal percussion, undulating bass and sulferous brass to demand "Get off your cross/ It's hot today/ Don't you talk your talk/ Don't you hesitate" before admonishing on the chorus "I get the feeling/ You don't listen to/ Anyone/ But yourself". Is this a celebration of the freedom of speech, as symbolised by the devil? Is it a criticism of the arguable moral tyranny implicit in Jesus' martyrdom? Just what the hell are those "hot rocks on display", anyway? Does any of it have anything to do with the puzzling Cat-in-the-Hat-take-on-Heideggerian-existentialist-theory imagery on some of the other tracks ("the clock can't see in front of itself"), that has also made its way onto the band Tshirts in the form of the stark statement "One of Us Is Dead"?
The music itself is immediate and lovely, so no worries there. Describing it is a bit more of a conundrum, but I'd advocate imagining the Beach Boys getting strung out in a field on cider midmorning in some alternative universe Texas, surrounded by retro-sounding DIY synths, a raggedy brass section, and a hippy cello player (serve at maximum solar illumination, but before everyone gets properly baked). You've got your simple motifs transforming into waves of orchestration, your mournful ascending melodies, and your childish air of wonder, equivalent in the average adult brain to the stunned peacefulness attained after being viciously slapped with a large trout and then shown a rainbow.
"Wayward Song" comes on like Brian creating the Chemical Brothers' "The Sunshine Underground" by accident three decades early, only with a lovely pastoral woodwind section, a dash of serene waltz and Southern Gothic choirs orbiting the sympathetic assurance that "It's alright/ To let yourself down/ Again tonight". On "The Devil's Country" he takes peyote, wanders out into the desert at midday (overpowering heated horns) and gets lost in a sandstorm (woozy, collapsing vocals and melting Indian strings), only to stumble upon a face-off between Spiritualized's Jason Pierce (cosmic percussion and drones) and Ennio Morricone (backing vocals and spur percussion), whilst hiding behind a large cactus; the crescendoing saxophone that breaks the dark seething tension of that duel is the most perfect evocation of a rearing, whinnying horse ever brought to record.
Oh, and there's a hymn to departed love "Bring It Back Again", which opens with the lines "My eyes are closed/ But I can see/ Faces/ Calling back to me/ They shine/ Like bells/ On a Sunday morning/ Come close/ And bring them back again". And indeed, the song manages to be both restrained, soothing, bright, and euphoric all at once, so they've nailed that matins-church-bell-captured-in-the-ripples-of-tiny-village-pond-under-cold-sunshine vibe they were obviously going for. Ahem.
I'm going to try and sum up The Earlies appeal by calling them progressive throwbacks: there is undoubtedly about them -- that '60s urge to inhale everything going and then exhale something brave and new and beautiful -- but it's allied to a startling and rigorously contemporary intelligence with a fine command of the ideas and possibilities offered by 40 years of musical and technological development. Hey, the '60s and '70s contained their fair share of failures, but what they bequeathed us has lasted at least this long unblemished. This is a flawed album, but when the collective time their leaps into the unknown just right, catching the updrafts of disparate musical genres serendipitously, they soar to splendiferous heights where, in the words of their singer-songwriter prodigy protégé Micah P. Hinson, "the possibilities... are endless, now."