Every Time I Think I’m Out, They Pull Me Back In!

May 10, 2006 at 5:22 pm (Uncategorized)

The Apples In Stereo. The Olivia Tremor Control. The Ladybug Transistor. Neutral Milk Hotel.

Remember the heyday of The Elephant Six Record Company? If you’re an indie music geek you do. If not, the E6 was a sort of enclave of like-minded young men and women that started up when three college buddies in Louisiana got together with their various bands and decided to help one another out by cross-promoting one another, assisting on recordings, gigging incessantly on the same bills, etc. The music was fascinatingly different from what was coming out elsewhere in the music world: The E6 bands had downright authentic ’60’s pop sound, somehow channeling The Zombies, The Turtles, The Pretty Things (The Olivia Tremor Control sounded like an S.F. Sorrow tribute band at times) into the 1990’s with insanely hooky melodies and an incredible earnestness.

It all worked…for a few years. Soon though, critics and fans alike started to hear a certain samey-ness to E6 bands. Promising new bands like The Minders managed one brilliant album and then weren’t able to follow it up with anything nearly as good. As a fan of so many of those groups back in the day, it wasn’t as clear then as it is now what had happened: these folks had all painted themselves into a musical corner; their pathological need to sound like their late-1960’s heroes served them well in getting them noticed, but once they’d given us their best songs, they ran out of steam quickly. The records stopped selling, the bands moved on, the movement is now best remembered by a lot of folks (folks who I distinctly remember seeing at live shows being totally mesmerized by E6 bands) as a dead-ender and a disappointment occasionally redeemed by a few memorably good songs.

So yeah, I got over my Elephant Six fixation about 5 years ago or so, after The Minders–a band whose debut sounded as promising as any new record out there–released two straight mediocre and uninspired followups and lost their rhythm section to Steve Malkmus. Two Brooklyn bands at least tangentially related to the Elephant Six thing (in spirit at least, if not in musical/financial means), the Ladybug Transistor and The Essex Green continued to put out records though. Isn’t that quaint? Sadly, other than the first song on the first Essex Green record (the remarkable “Primrose”) I had never heard anything from them that made me want to hear more. As for the Ladybugs, I remember hearing their latest a few years ago and realizing that the final nail in this sort of retro-Sixties music revival was driven for me. Nothing connected.

Understandably then, when The Essex Green released another new disc a month ago, my first reaction was “they’re still around?” followed quickly by “does anyone really care at this point?” But then I noticed that that new record, The Cannibal Sea was getting tremendous reviews around the internet. I resisted and resisted and resisted…but finally ended up grabbing it on the advice of a friend back in Chicago who kept insisting on the greatness of the disc.

Turns out she was right. The Cannibal Sea is, indeed, and terrific, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable disc, one I haven’t been able to stop listening to for the past week. It forces me to reassess the whole retro-60’s chamber pop thing, too. Apparently you only paint yourself into a musical corner if you run out of inspiration and songwriting acumen…but the way to extricate yourself from that dead end is to come up with terrific and memorable and catchy songs like The Essex Green have done on Sea. Sure, they may have updated their sound a bit, but there are still plenty of retro flourishes of the kind that sound gimmicky on awful songs, but serve good songs well.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Merge records is doing a magnificent thing, I think, by streaming all their new releases in their entirety (smaaaaaart move, that). So, head to http://www.mergerecords.com and give the new Essex Green a listen or two. The first track, “This Isn’t Farmlife” is so instantly winning that you’ll want to hear the whole album continue in that vein, but if you’ve a short attention span, I’d recommend that song, “Uniform”, and “Elsinore” as my favorites at this point.

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