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.

The Essex Green – The Long Goodbye

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

A little-known but wonderful trio, the Essex Green are humble practitioners of the pop arts. Originally from Vermont, where they played as Guppyboy, the threesome of Sasha Bell, Chris Ziter, and Jeff Baron decamped to Brooklyn and became the Essex Green in 1997. Invited to join the Elephant 6 collective, they issued their first album in 1999. The band also had cross-membership in the Ladybug Transistor and worked with Saturnine, a band that included Baron’s sister, Jennifer. As far as day jobs went, at least at some point Bell worked in documentary filmmaking, Baron did recording work, and Ziter was in web design.

What I Think of This Album

Yes, The Long Goodbye borrows heavily from the past, as the Essex Green updates classic ‘60s sounds – from folk-pop to chamber-pop to sunny California pop – but the band does more than just engage in retro exercises. The three have forged an identity on this album, and done so with sufficient self-possession to satisfy fans and sideline detractors. In fact, sometimes it seems like they are showing off and you know what, fucking good for them.

The band flexes its muscles early with the surprising “By the Sea,” which evokes gently rolling English hills with a bucolic flute part and angelic harmonies backing Sasha Bell’s distinctive and sweet lead vocal. Partway through, though, an unexpectedly aggressive lead guitar part appears and the flute part becomes more Summer of Love, leading to a veritable jam that would’ve rocked Golden Gate Park in 1969.

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is the standout out tune, with a Moe Tucker-influenced tom pattern (not a single cymbal is struck during this song, thank god) and a guitar riff that I would murder a close friend for. Bell once again does the honors on vocals, invoking the titular (though misspelled) constellation, New York magazine, and words of deeply romantic devotion. This wasn’t the song that made me fall in love with this band, but every time I hear it, I fall in love with them all over again.

Bell continues to dominate on “Our Lady In Havana,” which unfortunately is not a spy story (please return to this blog for more Graham Greene jokes), but very fortunately benefits from a spooky organ part and impressive supporting string work. Bell is again in the spotlight on the wonderful “Southern States,” offering perhaps her best vocal turn on the album.

The martial “Lazy May” employs an appealing rhyme scheme and heralds a return of the tougher guitar sound, at times evoking the Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” I think it’s Chris Ziter singing lead, with Bell taking care of harmonies. I can’t say I love “Julia,” also with Ziter (presumptively) on vocals, but it’s also not a bad song.

The trio evokes a trippy, quasi-ecclesiastical Byrds/Band hybrid on “Old Dominion,” with some gorgeous harmonies. “Sorry River” is a lovely tune carried more than capably by Bell, whose voice continues to be a revelation. “Chartiers” is another thoughtful and melancholy pop song, with Ziter offering a tale of love lost (and referencing Chicago).

The band cannot capitalize lyrically on the promising joke of “The Whetherman,” but that doesn’t detract at all from a truly beautiful song, enhanced by strings and steered by Bell’s excellent vocal.

The band carefully constructs “The Boo Hoo Boy,” a meticulously arranged song which Ziter does a nice job with, eventually trapping listeners in its insistent swirl. Closing things out is “Berlin,” a simple and straightforward love song with Bell and ZIter harmonizing perfectly.

Apparently there is a version of this album that contains a short, alleged reprise of “The Boo Hoo Boy,” which references yet another Graham Greene work (The Quiet American), but I don’t have that on my copy. Also, the music publishing is credited to Quiet American Songs. And, album title The Long Goodbye is a Raymond Chandler book (and related movie starring Elliot Gould), so someone in this band really likes the detective/mystery genre.

Gary Olson of the Ladybug Transistor was involved in the recording. Thanked in the liner notes are Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballard of Superchunk (but more relevantly, heads of the Merge label, home of the Essex Green).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is a joy.

Release Date

May, 2003

The Cover Art

Sasha Bell’s comically chaste outfit, complete with flute, and the stuffy, self-important demeanor of Jeff Baron and Chris Ziter propel the New England boarding school scene depicted here to unsurpassed heights. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a joke or not, but regardless, I really enjoy it. The use of red, black, and white is excellent; not sure about the bird image.

Saturnine – Mid the Green Fields

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

As with the debut, I have no recollection of how I acquired this. The back cover looks to be a little water-damaged, and the front insert is sort of warped as well, so I feel like I rescued my copy from a terrible wet fate. I don’t play this too often, and that is a personal failure that I am going to work on remedying. I don’t have a lot of info on what happened to Saturnine after their respectably long run. Matt Gallaway has a blog and it appears that he has written a couple of novels and is into photography. Jennifer Baron formed the Garment District. Mike Donofrio (like Gallaway) graduated from my law school two years ahead of me and (unlike Gallaway) is practicing in Vermont.

What I Think of This Album

Well, either Saturnine enjoys sabotaging their albums, or they and I have very different ideas of what is “good” music. Just as with Wreck At Pillar Point, they completely fuck up the sequencing here. Opener “Buried Ships” is a bland instrumental that bears zero relationship to the outstanding slate of songs that follows it. Guitarist/singer Matt Gallaway states that he felt this song heralded a new, more refined version of the band. I honestly don’t know what he is talking about. But, it was his band and his song, so . . .  

The rest of Mid the Green Fields is indeed revelatory. It is the work of a much more self-assured band, radiating with intentionality and demonstrating depth and sophistication. I have not yet listened to intervening second album Flags for Unknown Territories, so I can’t tell if the sounds on Mid were a leap or a steady progression from the music on Wreck.

The REM comparisons are arguably inapt this time, and notably, Galloway has much better command of his voice. The band also displays more control over the tempos. While still generally slow, the songs unfold organically and the quartet of Gallaway, Jennifer Baron, Mike Donofrio, and Jim Harwood steer the ship instead of letting it drift. Too, the album benefits from the contributions of Gary Olson (The Ladybug Transistor) on brass and cello from Randy Schloss. Almost every track is a gem – melodic, graceful, assured, emphatic.

Additional contributors are Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter, both of the Essex Green. Bell was also in the Ladybug Transistor for a spell, and Baron was a founding member of that band. Interestingly, Jeff Baron of the Essex Green was likewise a member of The Ladybug Transistor, and it seems like he and Jennifer are siblings.

Olson helped record most of this, but some tracks were recorded in part by Kurt Ralske (Ultra Vivid Scene).

The Best Thing About This Album

That it brings honor to lawyer-musicians everywhere. Go Violets!

Release Date

September, 1998

The Cover Art

I think Gallaway said they took this image from the cover of a classical music album. It’s okay.

Jackie Deshannon – What the World Needs Now . . . Jackie DeShannon: The Definitive Collection

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It’s a goddamn travesty that Jackie DeShannon is not an icon, role model, and superstar. By the time her family moved to Aurora and then Batavia, Illinois, young Sharon Lee Myers had already been singing on the radio and had hosted her own radio show. She left high school early and began her career in earnest (and under various stage names), eventually catching the attention of Eddie Cochran, who introduced her to Sharon Sheely, with whom Myers began a songwriting partnership. She signed to Liberty and recorded a bunch of songs, with not much success. Still, she opened for the Beatles in 1964. Much more rewarding was her songwriting career. She wrote hits for Brenda Lee and Marianne Faithful, her songs were recorded by the Byrds and the Searchers, and she composed with Jimmy Page and Randy Newman. She also co-wrote “Bette Davis Eyes,” just one of the roughly 600 songs she wrote in her career.

What I Think of This Album

It should go without saying that The Definitive Collection is not definitive, as it is missing, at a minimum, DeShannon’s “Bette Davis Eyes.” In fact, this collection is limited in scope to the songs DeShannon recorded for Liberty, though the track listing is ample at 28 songs, many of them previously unreleased.

The generous liner notes manage to leave out critical information, such as who played on the tracks (a who’s who ranging from the Byrds to Jimmy Page to Dr. John to Barry White), though some of this is explained in the narrative even as it is missing from the credits, and I wish the track selection was more heavily skewed towards DeShannon’s own songs instead of her versions of others’ material. Its easy to ignore these shortcomings, though, because it’s an eye-opening collection.

What is most striking is the wide range of styles DeShannon worked in. She did girl-group type stuff, was a folk-rock pioneer, trafficked in the singer/songwriter genre, excelled at blue-eyed soul, and interpreted Hal David and Burt Bachrach material with ease. What follows is the appreciation of her own songwriting talents, which again, really should have been the focus of the album. Finally, there comes the realization that DeShannon was a woman ahead of her time, doing things that unfortunately women were not permitted or encouraged to do in the ‘60s.

Of the 28 tracks, 17 are DeShannon compositions (in whole or in part), leaving 11 interpretive songs. My favorite original – which I admit I already owned, via the excellent One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found box set – is “Should I Cry,” a witty and affecting song of heartbreak with a killer vocal. Also, the demo version of “Splendor In the Grass” (later covered by the Ladybug Transistor) has a superb melody and features the Byrds as the backing band (also on vocals). While Irma Thomas’s version of “Breakaway” is better known, DeShannon’s original is not to be missed. Incidentally, Thomas’s version was a B-side, was spelled “Break-A-Way,” and is also on that Girl Group Sounds box set.

DeShannon’s biggest original hit for herself was 1969’s “Put a Little Love In Your Heart,” which has a Dusty In Memphis feel and is undeniably good. “When You Walk In the Room” was understandably a hit for the Searchers and decades later, for Pam Tillis; Springsteen has covered this live. “Dream Boy” has a surprisingly tough guitar sound, courtesy of Jimmy Page. A more noteworthy Page collaboration is “Don’t Turn Your Back On Me,” also with an intriguing guitar part, straight up rock drums, and a fantastic melody, with DeShannon laying down a perfect vocal. A demo version of “It Shines On You Too” is beautiful and beguiling.

Marianne Faithful had a hit with “Come and Stay With Me,” though I find little about this tune I care for. Beyond this, tracks like “I Remember the Boy” (also with Page on guitar), “You Won’t Forget Me,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Hellos and Goodbyes” are waiting to be discovered. As for songs she interpreted, her version of “Needles & Pins” (a Jack Nitzsche/ Sonny Bono composition, though DeShannon claims she was also involved) should’ve been a bigger hit for her (as it was for the Searchers a year later). The Ramones covered this, too.

She delivers more girl group goodness with “Heaven Is Being With You” (a Gerry Goffin/Carole King/Cynthia Weil song). Her biggest hit ever was “What the World Needs Now,” though I frankly don’t care for Bachrach/David songs. That said, “Lifetime of Loneliness” is pretty good, but it’s also fairly atypical of the stuff those two created. “For Granted” is sweeping and dramatic – maybe a little overproduced with those backing vocals – but still pretty good.

Rock trivia nerds will love that DeShannon recorded a Warren Zevon song – “500 Miles From Yesterday” – in 1966, long before he rose to popularity. Honestly, the song is just okay. Those same students of history may already know that DeShannon’s recording of “The Weight” (claimed by Robbie Robertson, but disputed by Levon Helm) was the first single release of that song. Dr. John plays the piano on this excellent track, and Barry White contributes backing vocals. Some of the pop stuff here could’ve been cut, as it drags things down, but regardless, this is a fantastic collection.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Splendor In the Grass” is a great fucking song.

Release Date

January, 1994

The Cover Art

This is adapted from the cover of 1967’s For You, with a different banner up top. I like the Imperial/Liberty Records box in the upper left.

Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

It’s not always easy to hear the lyrics in Yo La Tengo songs, and you’re not often left feeling good when you discern them. On this album in particular, as well as on I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, the conclusion that there is much amiss in the marriage between Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley is easily, though perhaps inaccurately, drawn. These are just songs, of course. Who knows from whence they sprang or why. But still . . .

What I Think of This Album

Yo La Tengo gets ambient, bitches. For the most part, this is a subdued, gentle blanket of an album, including the 17 minute long treatise, “Night Falls on Hoboken.” But even within the hushed tones, there are plenty of surprises. Whether the arrangements were carefully planned or developed organically, they add color and texture to the songs courtesy of shifting drum patterns (some from a machine), other percussion, bass swells, strings, organ, shards of piano, and guitar.

Representing another evolution for the band, I am not sure I would call it essential for the casual listener, though it is a superb album, and any existing fan should definitely check it out; in fact, I am not confident a non-fan would really appreciate it, if this was their introduction to Yo La Tengo.

That said, the album is anything but boring. There is plenty to keep you engaged, whether it is the Georgia Hubley-sung “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” (referencing a Simpsons gag, and invoking a bizarre love triangle of Tony Orlando, Dawn, and Frankie Valli); the excellent feedback-laced, whammy bar workout “Cherry Chapstick,” which is inconsistent with the feel and mood of the rest of the album; the unusual samba cover of “You Can Have It All” (which has “A Fifth of Beethoven” type strings, I swear to God); and the disquieting, Whit Stillman influenced “The Last Days of Disco;” the lyric “And the song says ‘Don’t be lonely’ / It makes me lonely / I hear it and I’m lonely / More and more” is a gut punch every time. In addition, there is the spoken word majesty of the “The Crying of Lot G” (the Pynchon tribute being incomplete insofar as the song is accessible and enjoyable); Hubley’s vocals on the country ballad “Tears Are In Your Eyes;” and the soundscape of “Hoboken.”

The band thanks the Ladybug Transistor and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan in the liner notes. Roger Moutenot produced again.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Cherry Chapstick.” Reapply liberally. Though the “it makes me lonely” from “Disco” is a veeeeeeerrrrrrrrry close second.

Release Date

February, 2000

The Cover Art

Pretty good. This supernatural photograph is by Gregory Crewdson, a professor at Yale University School of Art, and nicely juxtaposes the mundane reality of suburban/small town living with the otherworldly. The formatting of the band name looks good, as well as the use of very small font for the album title.

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