The Essex Green strives to revive an era's timeless popcraft
by Joe Tarr
About everything that's ever been written about The Essex Green invariably mentions the Beatles, Beach Boys, Doors, Byrds, and the Mamas and the Papas. The comparisons aren't the clichés of lazy writersyou really can hear Ray Manzarek's keyboard, the Mamas and the Papas' harmonies, and John and Paul's groundbreaking, psychedelic pop in the band's tunes. Their 1999 debut album, Everything is Green, wouldn't have sounded out of place released in between Pet Sounds and Sgt. Peppers.
But guitarist and singer Jeff Baron insists the group's not fixated with late-'60s psychedelic folk music.
"That record came out more psychedelic than it should have been. We're not really obsessed with the '60s," he says from his Brooklyn apartment. "What I think is special about '60s, '70s and even '80s pop music is it's song oriented.
"There was a brief period when people got away from that...It was more avant-garde rock music. Which is great for what it is. Then all these bands came back and said we want to start writing songs again. People can talk for hours about what the '60s mean, but [the music] is just about writing good songs."
The Essex Green used to be Guppyboy, which was formed at the University of Vermont in Burlington, by Baron, guitarist Chris Ziter, bassist Mike Barrett, flutist/keyboardist Sasha Bell and drummer Zachary Ward. When the group moved to New York City, Ward stayed behind (replaced by Timothy Barnes), and they renamed themselves for their love of greenery and ferry boats.
To make matters more confusing, the band recently recorded an album with Ward under the moniker The Sixth Great Lake (named for Lake Champlain's brief official status as a Great Lake, which was quickly revoked by Congress). Although Saturday's show is technically an Essex Green show, Ward will be playing drums with them, and they'll perform some songs from the forthcoming Great Lake album.
Shuffling line-ups is a way of life for the Essex crewBaron and Bell also play in The Ladybug Transistor, and other Essex Green members play with The Silver Jews and Jim O'Rourke. Plus, the group gets lumped in with the Elephant 6 Collective, which includes compatriots Olivia Tremor Control, Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel.
The proliferation of bands and side-projects makes sense when you consider that each Essex Greener writes, sings and plays a variety of instruments. Baron says he writes probably about a third of the group's songs, but adds that each composition is really a cooperative effort.
"We sort of all work closely together...Someone might come with a tune and a bunch of chords, but not know where to go with it. That's what I do a lot with, is arranging.
"It's good to collaborate. Everybody kind of does different things," Baron says. "It's also a struggle. You have to compromise a lot of your ideas, and everything has to be put out on the table for inspection.
"But everybody brings something to the table...Some people sing better, some people are better arrangers, and some people are better with lyrics."
The result is amazingly rich classic studio popranging from the infectious, folky "Mrs. Bean," to the trippy, drug-flavored "Grass," ("come and fly away/ the sky is so nice"), to the Celtic jig "Saturday" ("If you want to see the sun/ then son you'd better get up/ And daughter if you've never lived/ then now's the time to start").
The Byrds-like "Sixties" opens with a Sitar, and closes with the line, "meet me in the sixties."
Baron says the forthcoming Great Lake album is much less psychedelic. "This next record is much more folky and country. It's got much more of an acoustic feel with banjos and mandolins," he says.
Recorded in the second floor of a rented house on Lake Champlain over 10 days, he says the album is a stark contrast to the studio-produced Everything is Green. That perhaps has something to do with the surroundings in which it was made.
"It was really beautiful because the sun would set over the lake, and there would be this beautiful glow," he says. "It puts you in a better mood. When you're playing or recording a part, and you look out the window and see this beautiful landscape, a mountain range, it enhances the whole experience. We probably had a lot more energy and enthusiasm than we did going down into a dank studio."
No matter what approach the band (or bands) uses to create its music, Baron says the goal is the sameto create songs that survive the test of time.
"Put it on in 20 years, and it still sounds goodthat's what we're shooting for. I don't know if we've achieved that yet. But we're still trying."
March 8, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 10
© 2001 Metro Pulse