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The Essex Green - Cannibal Sea

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Artist: The Essex Green

Album: Cannibal Sea

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 28, 2006

Despite their Elephant Six pedigree, Brooklyn trio The Essex Green reject many of the commonplaces of the retro-pop genre. First of all, they don’t rely on hooks: sure, their songs are melodic and catchy enough, but not in such a way that the poppiness is shoved down your throat. Second, and more importantly, they avoid the kind of gratuitous referential flourishes that commonly serve as signs of “retro-ness.” The contrast between the group’s 1999 debut Everything is Green, which sports the Elephant Six logo, and their subsequent efforts makes their aesthetic strategy quite clear: Cannibal Sea, like 2003’s The Long Goodbye, eschews the baroque eccentricities and imitativeness of their debut in favor of a more stripped-down and streamlined sound, reining in the desire to weigh songs down with unnecessary sonic ornamentation.

For the most part, Cannibal Sea differs little from The Long Goodbye: the elements that made that album successful – tight songwriting, precise arrangements and elegant performances – are once again employed with aplomb. The songwriting team of Sasha Bell, Chris Ziter, and Jeff Baron is unfailing here, and every track is exceptional. While Cannibal Sea opts for a denser sound and more elaborate production than its predecessor, it never gets bogged down by tacked-on or superfluous details. Indeed, many of the arrangements here – which augment the guitar/bass/keyboard/drums core with strings, horns and synths – have more in common with carefully orchestrated chamber music than with the average pop song.

Vocals play a greater role on Cannibal Sea than on either of the group’s previous efforts: nearly every track is graced with choral harmonies, countermelodies, or exchanges. Bell and Ziter possess two of the loveliest voices in pop, and Baron’s lead-vocal turn on “Rabbit” is nothing to scoff at either. Both lead vocalists, however, sing with a curious detachment, favoring monotone delivery and a kind of stoic steadiness. In other contexts, their style might seem stiff or awkward, but it provides a perfect match with the Green’s calm and bucolic tunes. Indeed, bucolic is perhaps the best word to describe Cannibal Sea as a whole: The Essex Green, even in their more rock-oriented moments, never convey great excitement or anxiety, but rather exude the peaceful detachment of a band of Buddhist monks. All their musical talents notwithstanding, it’s this calm effortlessness that makes the band something truly special, giving them the ability to convincingly create the kind of idyllic beauty that so often rings false in efforts to conjure up the peace-and-love spirit of the ’60s.

By Michael Cramer

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