The New Classics / The Essex Green / Cannibal Sea

[The New Classics is a reoccurring segment in which we examine our favorite indie releases that are bound to replace our parent’s “classic rock” stash hidden in the attic or the basement. These aren’t reviews, these are unedited testimonies and opinions about why we love what we love. Can we get a witness?]

Words by Ricky

Album: Cannibal Sea
Artist: The Essex Green
Released: April 2, 2006
Label: Merge
Producers: Marc Hogan

About six years ago I quit my brief stint as an “artist” in the world of harsh noise music for a more traditional life ruled by the vigor power of pop. For a moment it seemed I finally “grew up,” but like most 20-somethings, my apparent “growing up” was just another boring phase. In no time I was back to smashing my make-believe air guitar along to favorite punk bands just like the old days, but I’ll always possess a love for magnetic, toe-tapping pop tunes. I’m not talking about lazy, hook-based snippets of melody…I speak of well-crafted pop music! This “growing up” period partly spawned after my first few listens to The Essex Green’s criminally underappreciated Cannibal Sea.

The Essex Green / Snakes In The Grass
The Essex Green / Cardinal Points
The Essex Green / The Pride
The Essex Green / Sin City

The band formed in the late 90’s in that pretentious cloud that some call “Brooklyn.”**. Actually that’s not totally accurate—they started as a Vermont-based psychedelic pop collective named Guppyboy. After Sasha Bell’s and Jeff Baron’s (later of Pittsburgh’s Boca Chica) stints in the incredible Ladybug Transistor (check out The Albemerle Sound album if you know what’s good for you), they re-aligned with songwriter Chris Ziter and eventually recruited percussionist Tim Barnes (drummer for the likes of Jim O’Rourke, the Silver Jews, random Sonic Youth side projects, and others). They recorded an EP, and soon, Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo noticed. He asked the Green to join his Georgian gang of dorky-sweater-wearing friends known as the Elephant 6 Collective (other Elephant 6-ers include Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Beulah, so it’s a pretty cool club). When Robert Schneider asks you anything, just say yes (unless he’s asking you to shave off his sweet beard—a ludicrous act if I ever heard one). Soon the folks at the great and powerful Merge Records approached the Green about recording albums for their label again, a question that can’t be denied.

The Cannibal Sea became the band’s second release for Merge (their other Merge offering, The Long Goodbye, also impresses on the psychedelic-pop front). The tracks on CS don’t capture the cultured streets of a crowded Brooklyn. Instead the melodies swim in from beautiful countryside ponds (or the seas near Essex, England perhaps?) presenting an oh-so-pleasant vibe probably capable of sound tracking the small town awkwardness, or likeable dysfunctional family, or endearing high school loser of this year’s breakthrough indie movie. “Pastoral Pop” is an adequate make-believe (or did I just create it?) genre for them—and I’m not coining the term based on song titles like “This Isn’t Farm Life” or “Snakes in the Grass.” Perhaps the most appropriate Essex Green concert resides on the porch of a small Pennsylvanian town or the inside of a broken down barn—an obvious contrast to the overly dense arena anthems of other Merge label mates like the Arcade Fire.

So what makes both the band and this album extra special? Well they’re like a grandma who follows a delicious pasta recipe but modifies the sauce with homemade ingredients and adds some special spice for a bit more flavor. Every Cannibal Sea track includes doses of extra flavors—whether it’s the subtle rhythmic palm muting and hidden melodic guitar lines during “Uniform,” or the layered keyboard throbs on opener “This Isn’t Farm Life,” or the playful vibraslap rattles on “Snakes in the Grass.” Maybe the album’s best little touch of class is the overlooked childhood innocence invoked through their simple melodies and cardboard cutout-looking album cover. Also check out this video of the group playing “Puff the Magic Dragon” on Pittsburgh’s Saturday Light Brigade for another example of this (it’s a song about the loss of childhood and NOT a song about drugs, like your friend told you).

The band mates don’t mind modifying the basic verse/chorus/verse structures of songs to create something a bit unique. For example I’m surprised and overjoyed every time I hear the unexpected return to the song’s chorus one last time near the end of “Snakes in the Grass.” Still the most straightforward apple of the bunch, “Sin City,” is the ripest. The folk guitars and random Rhodes piano tinkering complement the desperate lyrics. Bell sings for a mate not to forget the childhood surroundings and familiar friendly (smaller) city for the soul-crushing big city: “Sin City, please don’t take/ my lover’s heart, for mine will break./ It’s no Pittsburgh, please don’t go/ Ohio.” It’s a must-have song for any mix-cd assemblers, I tell you.
Looking back, new subgenres (like ‘indie pop’) occasionally spiral out of control (popularity-wise). That’s all fine and dandy, but when this happens, some essential bands (like The Essex Green) aren’t recognized as they should. I hope the Green Essex becomes a band that banks in thousands of dollars on a reunion tour years from now when more of the world looks back and recognizes their greatness. The band achieved decent success in their touring days, but they deserved more. They never officially separated—they instead disappeared—categorizing their status with the dreaded “h” word: hiatus. Blah.

So assuming these tunes spawn some enjoyment (which they will), pass them off to a friend with decent music taste. If all your friends listen to shitty music, then tell mom, dad, co-worker, drug dealer, whoever. Let’s start a revival, because the music world always requires perfect pop songs. Cannibal Sea is a perfect album that succeeds because it doesn’t try to be perfect. It combines 60’s pop, 70’s country, and classic psychedelic rock via stellar songs and a friendly vibe that’s difficult to shake from your playlist (and your heart too… awwwe).

Yeah, let’s start a revival. If you don’t have Cannibal Sea, do yourself a favor and pick it up from Insound

** OK, I joke. Brooklyn is cool.

3 Responses to “The New Classics / The Essex Green / Cannibal Sea”

  1. I saw Apples in Stereo play in the upstairs of a toy store in PGH around ’98. Before the show, while waiting in line for the bathroom, Robert Schneider asked if he could go before me because he had been in the van for 15 hours and he wanted to start the show.

    You better believe it’s true : “When Robert Schneider asks you anything, just say yes.”

  2. Nice story, j. Hard to say no to a man with that beard.

  3. “…criminally underappreciated…” Well said. The Essex Green’s continued obscurity must be the most baffling mystery of the millennium so far. I cannot figure out how a band who sounded so good and wrote so many great songs is not a household name. Thanks for the information.

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