The Long Goodbye
I never knew exactly who the Essex Green were. I think for a while I had them confused with Ladybug Transistor (with whom they shared members). I knew they lived in a big house in Kensington (Brooklyn) and recorded in the basement—or was that Ladybug Transistor? And this guy I know played with them on occasion—or was it with Ladybug Transistor? Since they were affiliated with the Elephant Six label, I assumed they purveyed a lite, melodic brand of neo-psych-pop not readily distinguishable from Of Montreal, Elf Power, or Apples in Stereo.
Not altogether wrong. But altogether reductive, my friend.
I happened to catch Essex Green live a couple of months ago at the South Street Seaport, and damned if it wasn’t one of those shows where you float on a river of sound that immediately makes sense and never stops making sense until you awaken with the last note, whereupon you cannot help but intone to your neighbor, "Lord, I believe I have just seen the Perfect Pop Band."
One serving of Essex Green takes the following ingredients:
1. A woman who writes and sings a good part of the songs. This would be Sasha Bell. She sings with an appealing vibratoless directness, not affected, not little-girlish, and relatively uninflected. Her look is similarly non-garish; on the cover of the last album she sports a black frock with white stockings, loafers, and desperately straight hair—perhaps a young schoolmistress from the Midlands? She also plays a mean keyboard and, occasionally, flute.
2. Two guitar dudes form the remainder of the band’s core. As near as I can figure (given the paucity of liner notes), Christopher Ziter plays rhythm guitar and sings harmony and some lead, and Jeff Baron plays lead guitar. The former is a good singer but not quite as distinctive as Bell. The latter is a first-rate axeman who really gets inside the songs, meaning that his parts enhance rather than distract. They’ve used several drummers, but the guy I saw was excellent; his determination, as with the lead guitar, to remain inside the songs was impressive.
3. Which brings me to my next point: Essex Green reminds me of the Kinks in a whole lot of ways. The drummer’s all over the toms, kinda like Mick Avory on the song "Wicked Annabella." The keyboard parts interact with the lead guitar much like Avory and guitarist Dave Davies on songs like "Afternoon Tea" and "Funny Face." The vocal melodies (and harmonies) are impeccable. Sometimes on the recordings there’s even a high gossamer voice adding a subtle but devastating counterpoint, in the manner of the underrated Rasa Davies (Ray’s ex-wife, who harmonized on many early Kinks records). And like the Kinks in their Great Period (’66–’68), the Essex Green stand firmly outside the currents of the marketplace. Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.
4. OK, so their lyrics aren’t in the same league as the Kinks, but whose are? They don’t suck, and that’s something. Just think of them as another element, maybe on the level of banjo or French horn.
5. Banjo?!? French horn?!? Which brings me to my last point. So I bought their newest CD (The Long Goodbye, Merge, 2003). After comparing it to their previous full-length (Everything Is Green, Kindercore, 1999), I have concluded thus: The Essex Green has ripened to a true September mellowness. (Note: They began life as "Guppyboy" in Chicago in the early nineties, soon relocated to Vermont, and thence to Brooklyn. They also have an EP to their credit, plus a CD under the name the Sixth Great Lake, neither of which I’ve heard, but I understand the last was some kind of countrified tangent.) Everything Is Green is quite a good album, with many of the above-mentioned features; but with The Long Goodbye they have clearly set out to make the kind of studio masterpiece one associates with the mid-sixties: more a Revolver than a Sgt. Pepper, more a Between the Buttons than a Beggar’s Banquet; more a Herman’s Hermits than a Skip Bifferty. You know what I mean: an eclectic batch of first-rate songs, where melody and harmony are foregrounded, and an elegant simplicity of writing and arrangement is maintained. (I’m assuming the songs are jointly composed, but I really have no idea.) A song may veer off unpredictably, but its form will be revealed as inevitable by the end. And a hell of a lot of thought has obviously gone into coloration: "No, no, we must have l’instrument juste!" This approach can turn annoying in some hands (High Llamas, anyone?), but something always emerges to save Essex Green from retro archness, whether it’s the songwriting, Bell’s singing, or the earthy guitar-playing and drumming. Even the requisite old-timey banjo song works for me. (Donovan would be proud.) The first two cuts are flute-driven, and it’s a flute more out of Forever Changes than Aqualung (whew). String arrangements are used sparingly and are more astringent than syrupy. There’s a perfect little French horn part on one song, chimes on a couple others, and some nice doubling (and even tripling) of melody. Hand-claps, maracas, castanets, Mellotron.
With all of this noted, The Long Goodbye is probably still too self-conscious a work to stand alongside a pure-pop classic like Odessey and Oracle, and it never bares its soul the way a Lennon or an Arthur Lee could. But—kill me for saying this—it has more staying power for me than a lot of similar bands. (Are you listening, Belle and Sebastian?) Maybe it’s the intrepid eclecticism. Maybe it’s because Essex Green really sound like a band onstage. On that midsummer evening at the Seaport they tackled the new songs with real aplomb, mixing tweeness and rockism so successfully that I never missed the orchestrations. And that’s something.
DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.