BY JENNIFER KELLY
Nostalgia has always been a big component of the Essex Green’s baroque 1960s pop sound. Even in its early aughts prime, the Vermont via Brooklyn-based trio echoed the billowy harmonies and intricate keyboards of scratchy mod 78s from Thee Left Banke or the Zombies. But now, a dozen years after their last record, Hardly Electronic adds another layer of backward looking, not just to their influences but to the fuzzy Elephant Six pop revival that surrounded them the first time around.
The band’s members now live in different cities and have accumulated the usual mid-life baggage of jobs and marriages and children, but they sound remarkably untouched by all that. “Sloan Ranger,” one of the singles, bursts to life in a buoyant shuffle, all sharp, jutting guitars and wheedling organ, and soft blurrily harmonized vocals that shift from euphoria to melancholy in a measure or two. It’s quality pop a la the New Pornographers, full of a fun-house energy and slyly slanted with sarcasm. Sasha Bell, as before, sings with an endearing brashness, sugary soft but with a sardonic undertone. Chris Ziter again takes about half the lead vocals, in a reticent drawl that falls somewhere between Stuart Murdoch and Dean Wareham. And Jeff Baron plays a chiming, radiant 1960-redolent guitar with more than a whiff of the Byrds.
Yet while “Sloan Ranger” and other songs drop plenty of references to an imagined Brit Pop past (“Sloan Ranger”), the most touching of these songs invokes more recent memories. I like “Patsy Desmond” the best, for its moody, jazzy piano and slinky violin, its whispery romantic vocals (Ziter mostly, with Bell in lush counterpoint) and its hushed dioramas of 00s indie life in Alphabet City and just south of Chicago (the lost indie siren of the song promises to tell all her friends at Drag City about something). It’s the sort of song that moves through a past that you maybe hadn’t even thought of as past yet, freezes the action and frames it in black and white.
Not all the songs on Hardly Electronic are as affecting – and some of them are just good bubbly pop fun. There are some misses – the country-ish “Bye Bye Crow” isn’t very good – but most are at least solid and surprisingly fresh, and a few are much better than that. Here’s to looking backwards and moving forward at the same time.
DOWNLOAD: “Patsy Desmond,” “Sloan Ranger”