Part 41 of a series that will run the last Friday of each month throughout 2013 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays
Well so much for sticking to my “2013 Mission Statement” for this series – I mistakenly thought today was the last Friday of January and only realized it was February when I started thinking about every Pennsylvania native’s version of Christmas, Groundhog’s Day. The good news is that you will get two Flashback Friday articles within the month of February.
In the late 90’s, the Elephant 6 scene really began to intrigue me. The bands with the most press (Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo) were great, but I began to gravitate towards loosely associated / fringe bands. The 1st band that I began to really listen to was The Ladybug Transistor. Stunning melodies, music that sounded like it was actually made in the 60’s. Album covers that recalled those glorious Bee Gees records from the late 60’s. As I began to dig deeper, I found that some of the band members were also in The Essex Green. Once I discovered The Essex Green, I discovered Guppyboy (slight difference in band members). I adored everything by Guppyboy and The Essex Green – even more than The Ladybug Transistor. This laid the framework for the 2001 release of the debut record by The Sixth Great Lake, Up The Country.
So far as I could tell, the only difference between Guppyboy and The Essex Green was that Timothy Barnes was in The Essex Green and Zachary Ward was in Guppyboy. The Sixth Great Lake record was being promoted by record label Kindercore as The Essex Green in a different guise – but Zachary Ward was in the band and Timothy Barnes wasn’t listed. Meaning – a Guppyboy reunion? Truthfully, all the band names can come off as a bit of indie elitism, but I assure you it is all worth exploring. I eagerly picked up the CD the day it was released and popped it into my player. The full length by Guppyboy, Jeffersonville, is a masterpiece in its own right – but this, this was something else. The record instantly recalled the greatest moments by The Band and toned down some of the quirkier elements of The Essex Green. I can honestly say that the record is one of my favorite records ever released and the show I saw for the tour in West Philadelphia is one of my favorite shows ever. It only enhances the memory that the show was in a frat house and the band didn’t come on until the wee hours of the morning.
Wish they could have stayed 27 forever…
Duck Pond – The opening track is a stunning slice of Americana. It features the distinctive vocals of Zach Ward (again – in Guppyboy and 6GL, not in The Essex Green or The Ladybug Transistor). It meanders along agreeably but sticks in your mind long after it has finished playing. Background vocals give it the sense of friends playing together in a room (probably an applicable image based on the album cover). Key lyrics: “The Geese know when to fly / They’re the hip birds of the sky / I can hear them honking goodbye”
Across the Northern Border – Sasha Bell takes the vocals for this track, and the presence of a female vocalist on a few tracks really enhances the vibe of the record. Atmospheric acoustic guitar and a haunting vocal performance lend this track a unique feel. There is an almost Celtic quality to the vocals. Key lyrics: “Follow your heartstrings when the sun comes up / The valley is a sight to see / How far we’ve learned to run / And all the eye can see was never meant to die / The seasons finish just as we’ve begun”
Up the Country – The album’s title track is a low-key acoustic lament with shades of Neil Young and The Band. Haunting backing vocals with a key line repeated twice towards the end “Rain don’t bring me down”. Perfection. It evokes visions of bonfires by the lake (and drives the point home in its lyrical content).
The Ballad of a Sometimes Traveller – Similar in style to the preceding track, but no less effective. The way the title is sung in falsetto style both resonates and is unsettling (or maybe I am easily affected by beauty).
Cannon Beach – Listening to this track 12 years ago in Philadelphia brought up different images in my brain than it does now. Having been to Cannon Beach in Oregon many times since I moved to the West Coast, it now makes me think of days on the beach with family and friends. Flute flourishes are a nice touch to this low-key and melodic tune. Key lyrics: “they way you’re smiling at me / it’s like you can read my mind / I’m still waiting”
Descending Star – A darker vibe to this track as it starts with an acoustic guitar passage giving way to the emotional vocals. There isn’t much backing besides guitar, but it works very effectively. Warmth lurks beneath the surface and finally enters the mix by way of extended guitar noodling.
Blue – one of my favorite cuts on a record full of favorite cuts. World weary vocals that sound like they should be coming from a man older than someone in their late 20’s or early 30’s. The chorus is ridiculously strong and again brings to mind The Band “I’m so blue as though as I just lost all my friends / when I’m on the porch / I’m trying to smell the leaves / they’re just rotting away in this city”
Last in Line – A bit of a 50’s Johnny Cash feel to the instrumentation but with Sasha Bell on vocals. The backing vocals on the chorus give the song an Appalachian folk kind of feel. “Have a drink on Christmas Day / 9 AM / It’s never too early…”
You Make the Call – “I’m listening / I’m listening to / tales of heartache” – these lyrics set the tone for the feel of the song. An acoustic lament that maintains the darkness for the entirety of its 4:00 running time.
Shades of Love – Much lighter vibe which is a welcome change of pace after the darkness immediately preceding this tune. “Picks up her lemonade / she won’t find that shade / in this heat / she’s all alone out in the street”. Everything works to perfection here – the backing vocals, the instrumentation, the lyrics – just a perfect song.
27 Forever – One of my favorite songs ever. It seems like just yesterday I was joking around with friends that I had finally made it to the “27 Club” that brings to mind Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Where did the time go? Here I am at a youthful 35 pretending I am 29. A sing-a-long song that laments for days now passed. Key lyrics “Many friends were made /You could hear it on the songs they played / Wish they could have stayed 27 forever”
Spin Your Wheels – Another fireside lament, yet it doesn’t get old – ever, not on this album. Key lyrics: “Spin your wheels / If it feels good / When you’re freaking out / I’ll be there” which then leads into a harmonica solo worthy of a Neil Young record. The song segues into a melodic instrumental coda that is perfectly executed.
300 Miles – An epic feel bubbles just beneath the surface as this song begins. Low key vocals, keyboards, and acoustic backing. The song segues into a barroom jam kind of feel before again shifting back to the mysterious vibe it opened with. “I’ll tell you all about my trip when I’m all safe 300 miles away”…to drive the point home a car starts and drives away as the song ends.
Rocking Chair – An album influenced by The Band just wouldn’t feel right without a cover of one that group’s seminal songs. A risky move to be sure, but The Sixth Great Lake not only pull it off – they hold their own against the original.
Lovely Today – A concluding track that encapsulates everything that is great about this record. Lyrics that resonate, emotive vocals, and perfect instrumentation. The track fades away on an instrumental coda of guitar washes and acoustics, perfect.
For a few years this album was fairly difficult to find because of issues with the Kindercore record label. Fortunately, this album is now available on most digital retailers. Go ahead and pick it up, it is worth every penny. Also worth exploring / hunting down – the Guppyboy record, anything by The Essex Green, and the 2nd record by The Sixth Great Lake. Join me in 3 weeks as I discuss Love and Other Demons by Strangelove.