The Essex Green – Cannibal Sea

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

I for sure bought this at the Wabash Street Tower Records in Chicago during the workday, a frankly depressing outpost whose lethargic approach to retail was a harbinger of the chain’s demise. In any event, I am pretty sure this was my first Essex Green purchase, prompted by a positive album review in Magnet magazine, a resource that I loved and trusted. That semi-institution is also long gone now, a victim of various millennial economic and social forces that have devalued music and journalism (and, particularly, music journalism).

What I Think of This Album

On their third, and as far as I am concerned, best album, the Essex Green adopt a cosmopolitan pop stance that arguably brings them to the forefront of cool (as in calm and collected), intelligent indie. It’s a development that is not terribly surprising; they had already started to move beyond their ‘60s-specific persona on The Long Goodbye while also demonstrating that they were more literary and worldly than even your average Elephant 6 band. Accordingly, references both explicit and oblique to Homer, Shakespeare, and Dumas float by on the European-influenced Cannibal Sea (which really feels like it needs a “The”) and the band adds some new wave horsepower to their trusty orch/folk-pop engine. 

The most obviously catchy and arguably best song on the album is the synth-flecked “Don’t Know Why (You Stay),” which could be a New Pornographers’ track, with carefully arranged parts and harmonies, including a nice blunted guitar attack and a strong lead vocal from Chris Ziter. Much like “The Late Great Cassiopia” from The Last Goodbye, this song strongly suggests that the Essex Green perhaps functions best as a modern power-pop outfit.

But that would be a mistake and a loss, for as entertaining and enjoyable as it would be to get an album’s worth of such material, it is the Essex Green’s musical restlessness that is actually their greatest strength. Thus, “Rue de Lis” is a sprightly folk song that suggests Simon & Garfunkel at their sunniest, with wonderful harmonies from Sasha Bell and lush keyboard accompaniment. Meanwhile, the band kicks up a surprising racket on “Cardinal Points,” a deceptively modest tune that ends with some actual rocking out. 

Opening track “This Isn’t Farmlife” has a bouncy Motown beat that the trio (plus anonymous drummer(s)) adorns with strings, keyboards, and vocal harmonies to produce a pillowy and warm mini-masterpiece. And not-quite-balladish “Penny & Jack” is a very good approximation of  British indie-pop, with Ziter and Bell trading vocals. 

The variety continues with the string-plucked and moody “Rabbit“ which sounds downright Elizabethan, though the misleading callouts to York and Carlisle are actually part of a mid-Atlantic travelogue that spans Pennsylvania and dips into other nearby states. This expertly crafted song includes some impressively mournful violin in the background. Another fakeout comes on “Sin City,”  which is really about Ohio (contrasted in the song with Pittsburgh), but is really really about Bell’s beguiling vocals and the careful, open instrumentation that allows the song to bloom. 

Perhaps another contender for best tune is the stomping “Elsinore,” with Bell taking charge on vocals to some creative percussive accents in the background, all against a backdrop of keyboards and guitars. It makes you wish Hamlet and Ophelia had been granted the opportunity to enjoy this song together.

Other worthy tracks include the somewhat ominous “Snakes In the Grass,” which benefits from clever production touches, including some vaguely psychedelic (as in “A Day In the Life”) effects; the keyboard-forward, jittery “Uniform”; and the oddly martial (but also, uh, urinary) “The Pride.” Winsome closer “Slope Song” proves that there is not a bad tune on the album.

Kudos to co-producer Britt Myers who collaborated with the band on this outstanding record. One of the drummers (though, also, possibly the only drummer) was San Fadyl of the Ladybug Transistor.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”

Release Date

March, 2006

The Cover Art

The banner reminds me of a cross between Monty Python and Neutral Milk Hotel, and that’s probably not what anybody wanted. The actual artwork is pretty meh.

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