Summer and the Essex Green. It’s a good combo. The vintage yet timeless sound of the band is like the warm sun on those forested Vermont mountains where they first strummed their instruments years ago. It’s been a long time coming for band members Sasha Bell, Jeff Baron and Chris Ziter – 12 years, to be exact, since their last album.
The delay was due to many factors, largely geographical, but also just general life changes, as discussed in more depth in an interview I did with Bell a couple of years ago for Popmatters. Despite the time, the new album (which bears the winking title Hardly Electronic) picks up right where they left off. The Essex Green has such an identifiable sound, due in no small part to Bell’s distinctive singing voice, but also due to a heavy 1960s baroque pop and folk rock influence. The new album tweaks and modernizes these roots a bit without veering too far off that classic and fruitful path.
One thing that really stands out is how diverse Hardly Electronic is: the organ laced jangle power pop of “Sloane Ranger,” Beatles-esque “Modern Rain,” down-home country stylings of “Bye Bye Crow,” the bright and punchy “Catatonic.” The ballad and last track, “Bristol Sky” echoes Wilco offshoot The Autumn Defence (a band also indebted to the 60s).
Bell’s Bandcamp page temporarily featured some of the album songs a while back when they were still solo tracks, and their inclusion here, all “Essex Greened,” is a welcome, proper airing. “Another Story,” “Waikiki,” “Slanted by 6″(a reference, Bell told me, to classic punk band Slant 6) figure in this batch, as well as the beguiling “In the Key of Me.” “You bought an airline to take up your free-time,” Bell sings in this offbeat character sketch which shows the band moving into new areas; a sort of mid-century modern orchestral pop mini-masterpiece.
I’ve been referencing the 60s in this write-up, and the band isn’t shying away from the retro tag either, with the album title, the font, and the cover shot of a 1970s kid on a bike, down to the additional woodsy album art of a rustic snowbound building and close-up of a plaid shirt (which look like they could be outtakes from a The Band album.) The focus is on a simpler time, when the average person had hardly any electronics apart from a TV and a radio. But the band’s not a slave to the past, and the album is not an uninspired pastiche or imitation of a bygone sound. They’re too experienced and talented for that and, I suspect, would not have reunited unless there was something new to be discovered about themselves and their music.
Its upbeat, its fun, its a band finding joy and inspiration in working together again. Hardly electronic, but definitely electrifying.