Listen to this track by one-time Elephant 6-affiliated power pop psych trio The Essex Green. It’s “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”, a crackling power pop tune as taken from the band’s third album, 2006’s Cannibal Sea. The group is connected to a web of many indie bands, most notably Guppyboy, once based in Burlington, Vermont. Upon the dissolution of that band, members Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter moved to New York to start anew and with a fresh moniker to define them; The Essex Green.
Their sound is clearly based in sixties and seventies jangle pop, power pop, and folk pop. That’s a lot of pop! On this third album and on this song, those influences are apparent, although much more integrated than they are on earlier releases. A big part of this is down to producer Britt Meyers and his more elaborate studio set up and mixing skills. Another part of course is a step up in the songwriting and performance department, as good as the previous album, The Long Goodbye, was. Perhaps this was because the band had recently come off of a big tour by then. It could also be that each member was concurrently involved in making music with other bands (Ladybug Transistor, The Sixth Great Lake) allowing new ideas to flow from one project to another.
Overall, The Essex Green provided an example of what it is to be indie in a post-major label era. In this new paradigm musicians have to be constantly on the move to cover their bases in various side projects, holding down day jobs while honing their craft, and knowing where to find their audience in the absence of big label budgets and in the light of fragmented media.
Another aspect that makes The Essex Green so indicative of a new industry paradigm is that their music flies in the face of a commonly held belief among many music fans; that they don’t make pop music like they used to. With “Don’t Know Why (You Stay”, one of the most striking things about the song is that it reflects certain aesthetics from past eras without being a pastiche or a parody of those sounds. I think this is true to their connections with the Elephant 6 collective, which was marked by this very same set of strengths. This is a reflection of twenty-first century indie music too; that all eras are fair game from which to draw out something new, also exemplified by their higher-profile peers The New Pornographers and The Shins.
What most stands out for me about this song, and about the music of The Essex Green in general is that for all of the sixties and seventies references, I don’t get the feeling that they are stuck in that sound. The song has a life of its own beyond its sonic references, which I imagine is the biggest challenge when working within a certain musical milieu. As songwriters, it’s important to say something new, even if the environment in which you say it is familiar. This is an expression of a twenty-first century creative space; that all music in part is an interpretation of something that came before, owing to strategic and respectful musical references.
As such, this song is both familiar and new at the same time, full of bright and jangling guitars, ah-ah backing vocals, and even a synth solo that acts as a foil to all of the clanging guitar lines. And of course, it is a song that is both effervescently optimistic-sounding, yet contains oceans of insecurity and self-doubt. You know I can’t resist that! It proves that what works in pop music in one era very often works for all time too, not necessarily an exercise in fetishizing a certain sound that doesn’t “belong” to new bands. As this song illustrates, whatever magic was conjured in eras past is still around, not as a nostalgic thing, but as an element that can be infused into music that can’t be restricted to any one era.
Cannibal Sea was the last Essex Green record to date, commonly argued as their best. But they have recently finished tour dates in Europe this summer, and there are even murmurings of a new album from the trio on the horizon sometime in 2017. To find out more about that in the coming months, check out essexgreen.com.
Otherwise, for more detail on The Essex Green, take a read of this article, which among other things talks about their place in the pop music universe, and how popular they had become in Sweden and Norway, places where pop radio includes them, bands like them, and is otherwise differently structured in order to do so.