Initially conceived as a project for Rilo Kiley co-singer/songwriter Blake Sennett to flex his songwriting muscle, The Elected have since blossomed into a proposition that's equal parts solo outing, collaborative musicians' confederacy, studio-based side project and "proper" band. Featuring contributions from members of Rilo Kiley, Arlo, Ozma and Azure Ray, along with assistance from the seemingly ubiquitous Jimmy Tamborello (of Dntel / Postal Service) and Saddle Creek production whiz Mike Mogis, Me First
emerges as a collection of sun-swept, decidedly Californian pop songs -- dark, light, happy and sad all at once.
Recorded on borrowed time at Elliott Smith's New Monkey studio in Van Nuys, California mere months before his death, Me First is suffused with an overwhelming air of reflective melancholy, its poignancy amplified by Sennett's admission that this album would not have been completed without Smith's generous assistance. Not only that, but there's a spectral, Smith-like fragility to songs like "A Response To Greed" or "British Columbia" that can't help but suggest the presence -- whether in sound, spirit, or by mere association -- of this album's studio donor. With his soft-sung whisper of a voice set to finger-picked guitar. Smith comparisons are surely nothing new to Sennett, but here, such similarities create an eerie, tragically inevitable resonance.
Another of Me First's notable presences is electro-boffin Jimmy Tamborello, fresh from his work with the Postal Service, where he achieved a near-perfect fusion of electronic experimentation with good ol' songwriterly instincts. It's a shame that his work here is at best peripherally decorative, at worst unnecessary. Unusually for Tamborello, when he's adorning Sennett's folksy, twangy strum-songs with a forced and jarring garnish of blips, beats, and glitches, or attempting pointless deconstructions of these sensitive country-rock jams with a series of fleeting sonic dissections, it often sounds curiously flat and completely at odds with the source material. One of the most incongruous and off-putting Tamborello moments here occurs midway through "Go On", when the lilting, summery psych-tinged vocal harmonies abruptly give way to a short, sharp breakdown of Aphex-lite beat-noise. It's the audio equivalent of a bad special effect, like the Byrds meet Tron.
Even so, Sennett's songs are loose, almost conversational pieces that virtually drip with brooding atmosphere. In the excellently-titled and incessantly catchy "Greetings In Braille", for example, he ponders memories of "picture cards, one-night stands and breakdowns" down at the liquor store. "If living's such hell", he wonders aloud, "here's to your dying days, you won't have to be afraid". Set to a waltzy, airbrushed beat, and a smoggy-sunset slow-dance of finger-picked acoustic guitar and harmonica, its lonely ambience of heartbroken reverb makes it the perfect aural accompaniment to a session of dusty porch sorrow-drowning -- and yet somehow it's a strangely uplifting saga, oddly epic in scale. Other highlights include the wealth of resplendent emotional riches harbored in the joyous, yet daftly-titled "My Baby's A Dick", while the gorgeous "Don't Blow It" has the kind of enormous, heart-full-to-bursting chorus on which great, life-affirming songs are built. "A Time For Emily", meanwhile, seems like a brass-addled epic at just two and a half minutes, becoming an eminently huggable best friend with each subsequent listen.
Me First may well be a highly personal record for Sennett, but to us it's a welcoming open invitation. A discernibly West Coast-influenced affair, it's an album of anecdotal moments set to a glorious country-rock backdrop: graciously sun-kissed melodies, vocal harmonies, neat arrangements and refreshing, varied instrumentation. In other words, these are joyously durable songs that lay eggs in your brain. In a good way, of course.