THESE UNITED STATES – A Picture of Three of us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden (2008)

These United States - A Picture of Three of us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden Everybody knows what folk is. Or, at least, everybody knows what folk should be. It should be simple. It should be forward-leaning. There should be some longing for something, anything. It should be poetic, yet lucid. Above all, it needs to feel human (if it’s not, how can it reflect all of the other aforementioned things?).

This brings me to These United States, a band who fall somewhere between Andrew Bird-esque folk, spacey jazz and lighter-than-air electro pop. A Picture of Three of Us is the band’s debut album, and it’s a promising one; on it, they deliver some truly captivating and diverse material.

Case in point: my two favorite songs off the album are both radically different. The first of these is First Sight, an absolutely lovely piece of electro-pop. While it lacks the grandeur of, say, Hallelujah from The Helio Sequence’s latest album, First Sight is ultimately the better song. It’s sweeter, and singer Jesse Elliot’s gentle voice (coupled with the rich imagery of his lyrics) evoke the sensation of something beautiful just over the horizon for a couple in love, a love that’s only beginning to blossom.

The second of these songs, Slow Crows Over, appears later in the album. Stylistically, it’s the antithesis of First Sight : an intricate multi-layered piece of soulful folk. It’s the kind of thing that Jack Johnson would do if he weren’t totally worthless. As the song progresses, Elliot’s voice gets buried under more and more echoes of himself, until the final repetition of the song’s ultimate statement brings the song to its end: “the bad sink back/I think the good go forward.”

Slow Crows Over is followed immediately by So High So Low So Wide So Long, one of many expansive folk songs that A Picture of Three of Us features. When I say “expansive”, I don’t mean that the songs cover a lot of ground in a lot of ways (the album sure does – the songs, by themselves, don’t necessarily)- I simply mean that they sound big; they occupy a definitive space. There’s no “me and a two-track in my living room” production to any of the songs on the album (nothing against that particular aesthetic – I should point out here that I’m a huge fan of Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank The Cradle). That’s partly why these songs are so interesting: you can sense the movement in them, which only makes the vulnerability of Elliot’s lyrics all the more heartbreaking. Musically, So High So Low So Wide So Long drifts along, always shifting under a sturdy foundation of bass; sometimes, the song is a flutter of piano, sometimes it’s acoustic guitar (and sometimes it’s electric), other times, it’s a procession of quiet drumwork.

Hmm. Come to think of it “always shifting” is a good summation of the musical progression of the album in general. Why didn’t I say that earlier? Oh well. I’m saying it now. Elsewhere on the album, These United States try their hand at slower, jazzier songs, and the result is equally as pleasing. Jenni Anne is one such song; it’s laid-back and full of the rattling of exotic percussion, as Elliot sings “them and I/you and the sky/everybody’s got to die sometime.” It’s strange hear such a sentiment expressed against such an atypical musical backdrop, but for one reason or another, it works.

Only The Lonely Devil Knows is another such jazzy song, which, as it progresses, has most of the instruments break down into a glitchy falloff, while the drums (and occasionally an organ) keep moving forward studiously. Eventually, the drum tempo disappears completely, and the song (and the album) comes to a close.

In a way, the biggest flaw of A Picture of Three of Us (its lack of focus) is at odds with the album’s strongest quality (its musical diversity). There’s no doubt that it’s a great album, but it makes for an unusual listening experience; it’s disjointed to listen to the whole thing beginning to end, and when you do, you tend to notice some songs more, while other songs get lost in the shuffle. I’m not sure what the solution to this would be, or if there even is one; I don’t know if an entire album of These United States doing electro-pop or folk or jazz by itself would necessarily be good on its own. But I will say that, in any case, it’s great to hear that the band, with only one album, can do so much, so well.

HD RATING: 8.5/10

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