THE ESSEX GREEN opening for CAMERA OBSCURA at the Opera House (758 Queen East), Wednesday (January 31). 9 pm. $17. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Considering the leisurely release schedule of the Essex Green, who typically put out one meticulously crafted pop epic every three years, it's far too soon after the appearance of Cannibal Sea (Merge) last March to start talking about what shape the follow-up might take.
However, the Brooklyn-based band's principal members - Jeff Baron, Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter - have had sufficient time to consider the various critical assessments of Cannibal Sea and to discuss what problems need to be addressed the next time they set aside a year to make an album.
"Problems?" blurts Baron over his cellphone from Baltimore, taken aback by the suggestion that the latest album might be less than perfect.
"All the reviews that I've seen were really positive - although a lot of critics keep comparing us to the Kinks and the Monkees. I don't think we sound anything like the Monkees, but somebody wrote that on our website, and everyone seems to be picking up on it. What kind of problems are you talking about?"
Aside from the fact that there isn't a tremendous progression in the Essex Green's songwriting or arrangements since 2003's The Long Goodbye (Merge), the performances seem somewhat stilted and overly polished, while the overall sound is thin and at times annoyingly tinny. This doesn't seem to be what the group was aiming for, drawing as they were on the inspiration of UK folk-rock groups Fairport Convention and Pentangle.
"I'm not a big fan of the way our record sounds. The producer (Britt Myers) went to Dartmouth for sound engineering and majored in Pro Tools recording. He knows what he's doing and has great equipment and, being a good friend of ours, didn't charge us anything for using his studio.
"But it was all digitally recorded, so I know what people might be hearing. I can hear it myself. Our record sounds metallic and very small, like it's been crammed into a tiny sphere - which is not what we're about."
Baron cites the trade-offs you have to make when dealing with any technology. Despite the many advantages of working with Pro Tools, for the next record he wants more of an analog sound, like something that was recorded back in the 70s.
"I think it's going to be more of a White Album type of feel, with some studio-produced songs and other things that we do at home mixed in."
But why just stop at analog recording? Surely with the Essex Green's connections, they could just flash their Elephant Six beacon into the night sky and have a crowd of sympathetic musicians from college towns in Georgia, Vermont and North Carolina show up with various dulcimers, zithers, harps, saws and hand percussion to turn their next recording session into a freak folk love-in. It could happen.
"We were freak folk before freak folk was cool. When we started out, we were doing songs by Richard Thompson and Vashti Bunyan. That's the stuff we were listening to, but we had more of a pop sensibility.
"I wanted to go in more of a folk direction, at least on some songs, and when it came time to do the sleeve design I was saying, 'Why can't we just use a picture of a tree or a field?' But if we did, everyone would write that we were just jumping on the freak folk bandwagon."
The solution may be to release some of the Essex Green's folkier early recordings from around the time of group's notorious Brooklyn Basement Tapes, which have circulated amongst the group's hardcore fans.
"No one was ever supposed to hear that stuff," Baron huffs. "Mike Barrett, who is no longer in the band, used to love to make his own band posters, cassettes, CDs, whatever. He was like an archivist but with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Each of us would work on four-track tape machines trying to get some song ideas together, and then Mike would go around and grab the tapes, listen to them and compile his favourite tracks onto 'albums' with his own song titles and artwork.
"So the Brooklyn Basement Tapes were really just scraps and ideas - some of them very embarrassing - but Mike was selling that stuff on the Internet. When we found out we told him to stop, but it was too late.
"Now if you look at Wikipedia, they're even listed in our discography!"