The Elected’s Sun, Sun, Sun opens with the sound of birds trilling, followed by a crescendo of cymbals, piano, and harp that resembles the forest branches pulling back at the start of a Disney film, revealing cartoon animals frolicking in a heaven-like haven. Elected frontman Blake Sennett sings a brief opening theme, to be reprised at the album’s end, about a bird with a broken wing who “can still sing,” at least. And here we are, inside of Sennett and company’s idyllic world, where the song is the thing and the natural wonders of America are the backdrop for the singing.
Sonically Sun, Sun, Sun is covered by the sheen of its titular orb of light – the album has a purposeful glow over it, one in keeping with songs that exude that laidback, afternoon-on-the-beach feeling which I can’t help but associate with California, from which the band hails. “Would You Come With Me”, the album’s first track after the opening lift of the curtain, represents the epitome of this style. Birds sing again over its opening notes, as some fairly gorgeous guitars float and soar like we’re in the tropics, or witnessing a surf guitarist who got stuck in slow motion. Sennett sets up a scene where he and his beloved are on a hunting trip, but have no intention to hunt; they’d rather just wear those stylish hunting caps, “sit right here and sing.”
There’s mention made of “sadness creeping like vines” in this song – and no wonder, as sadness was the subtext to every song on The Elected’s debut Me First, and to several of them here. Raw emotion propelled the Me First songs, which showed lyrical and musical growth from the Elliott Smith-lite songs which he contributed to his other band Rilo Kiley’s albums. But honest expressions of pain and confusion are further from the surface here. And when they do appear, they’re usually muted by the album’s sound, which is pure sun and air.
That’s mostly the story of Sun, Sun, Sun. An overly misty, blissed-out demeanor threatens to cover up any of the rougher emotions that are expressed. The songs are all melodic, and somewhat alluring in how they build sunshine from twinkling pianos, tambourines, and campfire guitars. But they tend to wash away together, under one big, bright sunbeam. At times the f-word will jump out at you, or you’ll be intrigued by the specificity of a line like “the tree in the front of the yard is starting to grow”, but there’s nothing as potent as the pain-filled lyrics present on the first album. And the music tends to blur together under one cover, with the abiding feeling of a vacation, minus the fun. Or at least, that is the case until a few late-in-the-game moments, when the Elected starts messing around with genres in a playful, and distinctly fun way.
The lover’s tribute “Did Me Good” begins with a bluesy guitar lick that wouldn’t be out of place in an Eric Clapton beer commercial, throws in some horns, and caps it all off at the bridge with Sennett channelling a greasy lovesick TV preacher, pleading and ranting. It’s completely over the top, and by all means cheesy, but it has the effect of fingers snapping us awake. All of a sudden the Elected doesn’t sound like their songs are the precursor to a nap on the beach. Instead they come off like a passionate, sloppy bar band, filled with grit.
That gritty side shows up a few songs later on “I’ll Be Your Man”, which opens like a laidback take on “Mr. Sandman”, done up as a yearning-filled come-on, and glides along emotionally, fueled again by blues guitar. “Biggest Star”, the album’s big blow-out finale, couples with that song well, opening with the narrator offering a “so what” reaction when the object of his affection walks away. As the song turns into an overblown expression of confidence, Sennett sings like he’s on a glittery Vegas stage, strutting and boasting. The band first plays it gentle and then shoots for the rafters, with big, blustery guitars and a Saturday Night Live -ready saxophone solo. Sennett sings til his voice is hoarse, and then sings some more. He sounds like a trainwreck, as does the song, but at the same time this is exactly the kind of passionate singing that can show off the power of song, much better than the more pleasant, but more innocuous music that fills up too much of the album. It’s a strange album like that: its best songs are the worst songs, technically speaking. When the band isn’t afraid to get bombastic and hit off-notes, it shines.
Sennett has mentioned in interviews that was going for an Eagles vibe with parts of this album. I took that to refer to the lazy-day-on-the-beach mood that permeates most of Sun, Sun, Sun, and maybe to the nature imagery, even though none of the sunnier songs here sound like the Eagles. What does echo the Eagles, in a less direct way, is the unafraid-to-be-cheesy side of the album’s best moments…even though Blake Sennett realizes he’s being cheesy, and is having fun with that quality of the song, while Don Henley and friends no doubt would bristle at someone calling their music “cheesy.” So maybe the feeling of a song like “Biggest Star” isn’t the Eagles, but more like a karaoke version of the Eagles, like a bunch of friends getting drunk and singing “Take It to the Limit”, and doing it with more heart, and much less “perfection”, than the Eagles originally did. More heart, and less perfection is what this album needs, actually. The “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” feeling is torpedoed in moments like this, moments Sun, Sun, Sun could use more of.