First things first…Let’s just go ahead and get it over with. A wince, a cringe, a flinch…whatever it is you happen to call that semi “huh?” reaction that inevitably traces the mind the first time you read “These United States”. Just who’s got the moxie to represent themselves in such a way? Well, the answer to that question belongs to Jesse Elliot – a wilder, more poetically American name in indie rock there is not. And after several listens to his recently released debut album, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate To The Garden Of Eden, you’ll have no need to wonder why.
With a love for line and lyric few contemporaries can match (Andrew Bird and Dan Bejar being the only two who currently come to mind), Elliot builds behemoth strings of verse that plume off in a variety of different directions. Like encyclopedic DNA, A Picture of the Three of Us finds its’ genetic make up in themes of love, hope, and rebellion. Of course reaching the heart of such stories takes a commitment on the listener’s part. Elliott has put too much time, too much thought, too many syllables, too much rhythm, and far too much creativity into these songs for their subjects and themes to immediately nail the listener straight across the kisser. Instead, songs like “First Site” – with its’ playful, almost mischievous keyboard line kicked about like a crumpled dollar bill on a crowded sidewalk – unfold languidly. Singing “With her mouth making movements to introduce thoughts/I sat deafened by trust on the sofa across/Quietly calculating the logistics of lust – of when unspoken things could happen then between us”, Elliott rewards those of focus with loads of magic and mystic to crack.
Such handsome fits of prose would be wasted without an equally inviting pastiche in which to mend themselves to. Luckily, Elliot lined up old friend – David Strackany, known to the music world as Paleo – to handle engineering, producing, and arranging responsibilities on the album. In addition, the duo roped in upwards of 30 DC and Midwest-based musicians to lend their many helping hands. While such involvement sounds a bit of a monstrosity, A Picture of the Three of Us never tastes overdone. On opener “Painless”, Elliot’s effortless coo finds its’ place among lacy pillows of piano, the occasion acoustic strum, some semi-swelling vibraphone, and perfectly manicured pulses from the bass. Painless? I’ll say… Country romp ”The Business” might employ classic, anti corporate banter (“I’m into the business/I am working for some man”), but its’ ramshackle drums and a mariachi firing line escort this hoot of a song along rather famously. On “Remember Dear”, a psychedelic swirl of instruments (bells, bass drum, snare, guitar, bass, accordion), time, and style (swing, blues, cabaret) fly out from the center in one beautiful mess…only to curdle up like a black hole whenever Elliot interjects. And “Jenni Anne” plays a slightly sexy kind of role, rattling along to the beat of a percussive pack rat. Thumps, jingles, scratches, clobbers, and clops; every hit is deliberate, setting the stage for one glorious moment of cohesiveness…all while Jesse defines the rules: “There is no rules”.
For as many compelling songs Elliot and his compatriots cram A Picture of the Three of Us with, perhaps no song speaks as much to the mission of These United States as “Burn This Bridge”. Sneaking down the path to a tom tom glide, Elliot places little stock into any kind of back story. Rather, “Burn This Bridge” is a forge into the future, with no reason to cautiously peak past the shoulder. In a small way, this is everything listeners need to know about These United States. It’s a time and a place; one rooted in the hopeful here and now that surrounds us. Could any other name have served as well? – David Pitz