The Essex Green – Hardly Electronic

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

So, the Brooklyn-based Essex Green released the excellent Cannibal Sea in 2006, toured globally behind it, and then disappeared for over a decade. Sasha Bell had a child, moved to San Francisco, and then went to Montana to pursue elk-related science, and also released music under her own name. Chris Ziter returned to Vermont and started both a family and a tech company (and also got into fermentation?). Jeff Baron built and lived on a houseboat that cruised the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers (as an aside, I always thought The Monongahela Monsters would be a good name for a mariachi-punk band). At some point, Baron moved back to Vermont and with the help of technology and airplanes, the band started recording their fourth album. They also toured behind it, and I saw them play at Sleeping Village in Chicago. It was a marvelous show, and I was thrilled beyond belief to have the opportunity to see them live. They also worked New Order’s “Age of Consent” into a medley, which put me over the moon.

What I Think of This Album

The best thing about this album is that it even exists. If that sounds like faint praise, then the problem is with you and not with me. Context matters. I suspect no one ever expected to hear (from) the Essex Green again, and that they managed to pick up where they left off after more than ten years of frustrating (and, eventually, inconsequential) silence is nothing short of a miracle. So that makes the fact that Hardly Electronic is a great platter the second best thing about it.

For an album recorded at six (and maybe more) locations in four states, to say nothing of being the product of a reunion a decade in the making, Hardly Electronic betrays nothing of its lengthy and peripatetic gestation. Bursting with melodies and Sasha Bell’s golden tones, this could have come out two years after Cannibal Sea. The band continues to deliver delightful, carefully crafted pop songs. 

Such songs include driving and burbly lead track “Sloane Ranger” (somewhat dated British slang akin to “preppy,” and which I think I heard someone utter on an episode of The Crown), which among other things, gives lie to the claim of the album title and more importantly reminds us of how wonderful Bell’s voice is. The brief backwards guitar and the glorious harmonies of Bell and Chris Ziter are among the many pleasures of “The 710.” Somehow the eye-opening “Don’t Leave It In Our Hands” surpasses both these tracks, reminding us of what this band is capable of, and shining so brightly it basically dares the New Pornographers to steal from it.

“Waikiki” is a showcase for Bell, who is generously supported by a pillowy, dreamy arrangement which unfortunately is over almost as soon as it begins. The loping “January Says” is classic Essex Green, washing over you like a gentle, warm, and neverending tide. And “Smith & 9th” is propelled by peppily strummed acoustic guitar and an earworm keyboard line. 

The trio also succeeds in working other sounds into their transcontinental mix. Lush orch-pop (verging on orch-prog) is represented by “In the Key of Me,” which hearkens back to the band’s roots in the Elephant 6 movement. There is a touch of soul to the organ-rich “Modern Rain,” which nonetheless leaves room for a short and stinging lead guitar part. They get slightly psychedelic on the star-bursting and inaptly titled “Catatonic.”

There are a couple of uncharacteristic stumbles. “Bye Bye Crow” is country pastiche taken a bootstep too far, and “Slanted By Six” is downright annoying, coming across like an ill-conceived Neko Case offering (that said, I can legit see some listeners being really drawn to it). Too, some tracks don’t leave much of an impression, like “Patsy Desmond” (which nonetheless has an interesting arrangement). But this mild criticism is offered only in the spirit of comprehensiveness; Hardly Electronic is a fantastic fucking album.

The Best Thing About This Album

I know that I already said that the best thing about is that it exists, which means I get to say something different this time. “Don’t Leave It In Our Hands” is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Essex Green’s artistry.

Release Date

June, 2018

The Cover Art

Look, I don’t like photos of topless kids. Infants and even toddlers are okay, but once you get to the tween years, then such images carry more than a whiff of suspicion about them. I am only accusing the Essex Green of poor judgment, nothing more. But even if you threw a Ban-lon shirt on the cover star, this art would still be pretty lousy.

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