Previous songs I’ve heard from The Essex Green have had their charms somewhat blanketed by the earnest groovy-’60s vibe laid on with such love and attention that it all grew a bit thick–everything from specific guitar sounds to the character of background harmonies and the tone of flute flourishes seemed almost too studied, or maybe too precious. Or maybe it was just the songs didn’t stick. But the band is back soon with its third full-length CD (The Cannibal Sea) and it sounds like things may be really clicking for them this time. “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)” has the crisp swagger of a great old Lindsay Buckingham tune, building a compelling whole from the steady, knowing layering together of its various parts; when the Mamas-and-Papas harmonies come in to flesh out the chorus, they seem the perfect embellishment rather than a cute bit of retro style. And darn if I don’t love to death the mysteriously engaging vocal leap taken each time on the second “I don’t know why” of each chorus. Too bulky to describe in words, just listen. It’s mysteriously engaging, you’ll see. The new CD is due out in March on Merge Records.
Not much of a fan of pre-fabricated Hallmark holidays, I offer a prickly-cute, offbeat sort of Valentine’s Day salute, courtesy of the prickly-cute, offbeat Shelley Short. With a timeless, deep-folk melody, charming percussion, and an arresting violin accompaniment, the song clangs along with a determined stop-start-iness; it’s like someone deconstructing the McGarrigle sisters. Short’s new album, Captain Wild Horse (Rides The Heart of Tomorrow), is as endearingly enigmatic as the title suggests, a sometimes hypnotic amalgam of soft but often off-balance sounds, recorded in a purposeful sort of lo-fi sheen, if such a thing is possible. Short is a refugee from both art school and the Pacific Northwest who has settled for the time being in Chicago (“for no good reason,” notes her bio). Captain Wild Horse is her second CD; it will be released tomorrow (Valentine’s Day!) on Hush Records; the MP3 is courtesy of the good folks at Hush.
Glistening and stately, “Not Going Home” is a spiffy and captivating example of a new sort of rock that’s been emerging here in the 21st century, a rock that merges the big and the small in subtle and distinctive ways. While taking a lot of sonic cues from the smooth pop-rock of the ’70s, this is not really anything like that sort of stuff. The band’s own record label refers to this song as the album’s “stadium-sized centerpiece” but I really think they’ve got it mislabeled; it’s only stadium-sized to the extent that the stadium fits onto the HDTV screen in the family room. And to be honest that’s really what’s so intriguing and different here. Blake Sennett and company here take an expansive melody, rig it up with layers of vocals, underscore it with a ringing, reverb-ing guitar line, and still give us something precise and intimate. Sennett’s voice has a wonderful, mouthy sort of character that gives his whispery high notes an unnerving amount of depth. I can’t nail this down with words, but the sonic space here is introspective rather than extroverted; even the all-but-shouted vocalizing of the song’s final minute sounds personal and close at hand rather than arena-big. Sennett is Jenny Lewis’s songwriter partner and guitarist in Rilo Kiley; the Elected is his side project, and the band’s album Sun, Sun, Sun (Sub Pop), coincidentally or not, came out the same day in January as Lewis’s more widely publicized solo endeavor, Rabbit Fur Coat. The MP3 is available via the Sub Pop site.