hese days, Earlimart’s Aaaron Espinoza is writing songs that rest on the band’s past accomplishments. Everyone Down Here and Treble & Tremble were both critically acclaimed indie gems—furrowed, dusky albums that achieved a moody sophistication with lo-fi, often anemic production and relentless guitar-bass rhythms that earned them comparisons to Yo La Tengo and others. Mentor Tormentor is allegedly their clean-up album, though the stylistic integrity here has not actually diminished. The production is improved, but the group’s exceedingly warm, bass-boost mixing and brisk rhythmic stomps have always been there, particularly on Tremble, which featured Jim Fairchild, Jason Lytle, and Aaron Burtch of Grandaddy, who brought power to the sound that’s been retained here.
Occasionally this leads to frisky numbers like “Happy Alone,” where the usual themes of isolation, relational rifts, and nostalgia, conveyed with the same vocal combination of passion and nonchalance, are coated with a rather odd gloss of “ba-da-ba” bits from Ariana Murray. She picks up more vocal work on this release, but it’s really the dark and heavy finale of noodling guitar that make this song listenable. The long, deliberated harmonic sashays that happen at the crux of verse and chorus are fluffy in an Aimee Mann sense. But the little minor shifts from the guitar, wallowing in the distance, adds meat to the substance just in the nick of time. Alone, the major-key mood of the song doesn’t convey the mournful sense it wants to.
The Ship, Earlimart’s recording space collective in Los Angeles, belies the collaborative politesse of this band and their friends, particularly Grandaddy. The studier piano work on this album, particularly songs like “The Little Things,” has much in common with Jim Fairchild’s recent release under the group moniker All Smiles and “The Movies,” the gorgeous little tearjerker from Earlimart’s Everyone Down Here, its downward-descending piano progressions thumping longing into the ear. “The Little Things” doesn’t achieve the same power here; it strums alongside the guitar in traditional chords and climbs that are only enhanced—as usual—by the feather-light duet between Murray and Espinoza. Think of Earlimart and this vocal union is the trademark that comes to mind.
It’s disappointing not to hear more songs like “Fakey Fake,” which starts off the album as a simplistic couple of guitar strums and tambourine syncopating together, but quickly turns to an evolution in the band’s sound, using effects to enhance the soft vocals, an even softer, tinselly drum machine to introduce the whole thing, and a long build-up that might be better suited to the end of the album. But the drums come plowing through two minutes in, explaining how this could be placed first. Hand-claps are added to the mix, and the whole thing plods on to benighted and sinister effect, the guitars dropping off at the end to let the drums close out. But as the best song on the album, it tricks us into listening on.
The other songs may be effective, but not nearly to the same degree. The great duet returns for “The World,” where a phasered piano smokescreen develops into a waltzing labyrinthine of complementary vocal melody: “The world is all around us / There’s little room to breathe” as a lyric doesn’t have much effect until a string section appears in the background to coat the harmonies in another layer. It’s basically a Beatles throwback, and an example of how improved production has solidified the band’s sound, if not the wonder of its newest songs.
There are attempts at the kind of cheery stuff that Peter Bjorn & John have recently accomplished, but the band’s best tracks have always been fretful, moody, and understated—not exactly joyous and community-minded, as they are here. In many cases, including the silly “Nothing Is True” and hand-clap-happy exit track “Cold Cold Heaven,” there are too many layers, too much sheen, too many people singing and clapping, and a departure from that warm atmosphere into a realm that is simply cloying. Props for being candidly happier, but as is often the case with bands with ten-plus-years of solid material, Earlimart’s newest release serves us better as an unwitting PR campaign for the rest of their oeuvre.