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Earlimart's Songs Of Loss

From the opening piano chords of "Hold On, Slow Down," through the sardonic whisper of "All They Ever Do Is Talk," all the way to the gentle, brush-punctuated waltz of "It's Okay to Think About Ending," Earlimart's Treble and Tremble is haunted by the shadow of loss. One particular loss, in fact, has left a strong mark on this ethereal album — that of the band's friend and mentor Elliott Smith, who died shortly before the band began recording.

"We were on the road supporting our last record when he passed away," remembered Aaron Espinoza, Earlimart's singer and main songwriter, in a recent telephone conversation. "We came home, canceling the rest of our tour, I guess it was November, and then started writing right away, partly because we felt like... it felt sort of natural, but also because we were supposed to turn a record in at this point, too. It's kind of a hard thing to navigate, the business side of it and the heart side of it. OK, you have to make a record, and what are you going to write about?"

Yet though Treble and Tremble cannot help but evoke Smith, in its history, its lyrics and its soft, haunting sound, Espinoza said that he hopes the CD doesn't get pigeonholed as a tribute album. "We're not the flag-bearers. We're not dressing up in a costume to represent the legacy of Elliott Smith at all," he explained. "I think people can get a lot out of this album without having to know about Elliott Smith."

Still, there's no denying Smith's influence on Espinoza and the band, both personally and musically. "I was a big fan of his before I ever became friends with him," he said. "He's so honest and truthful and just so good that he definitely had to be an influence. He's probably one of the most intelligent people I've ever met in my entire life and had the biggest heart ever made."

He added, finally, "Elliott was the type of person, when you have those people in your life, you realize that there's something special happening. You're there with them; when they let you in, that's the best feeling in the world."

Many listeners turn to music to help them deal with pain and loss, and Espinoza says that making music serves some of the same purpose. But, he added, "It's not completely 100% therapy. I'm not real good at writing happy songs. I feel like, you know, songs are just sort of snapshots of the day. It might be 10 percent of the day, the song, but there's a whole other 90% of the day that doesn't feel that way."

In fact, there's a subtle uplift to many of the songs that makes even the most lyrically sad ones feel hopeful. "The Hidden Track," for instance, is built on a chugging guitar and bright-toned keyboard that seems to be moving up and on, even as the lyrics describe driving by the house of someone who isn't there anymore. "I feel like a lot of songs have these... kind of like a triumphant feeling at the end, sort of like the end-of-the-movie music, not necessarily like 'woo-hoo!' but sort of a resolution," says Espinoza.

Treble and Tremble is softer and more orchestrated than previous Earlimart records, whose fuzzy guitars and driving rhythms drew comparisons to The Pixies and Pavement. Recorded at The Ship, the studio Espinoza built and equipped himself, the record is more collaborative than any past effort, with a rich and evocative blend of traditional rock instruments, strings and keyboards. "When I started writing the songs, it might have started with something as simple as voice and guitar, but I left room for other things, and it didn't have to be set in stone," he said. "Then I turned it over to the band, and we fleshed it out and put stuff on it. I let the verse breathe, I guess. It's kind of a rough sketch when I bring it in."

There are a couple of harder-rocking songs on the album, including "Sounds" and the amusingly titled "Unintentional Tape Manipulations." Espinoza said the title was inspired by a fan's letter. "This guy had written and said, basically, I love the songs and everything, but your records are too short and the songs are a little too short," he explained. The writer went on to make a few suggestions. "He said, if you're short on songs or the record's too short, maybe you might consider some more segues and sonic landscapes, because that's what I do. I just make little sound collages, and I make unintentional tape manipulations."

He closed by saying that if Earlimart couldn't make longer songs and longer records, he might have to reconsider his fan-ship. " Tape Manipulations," which clocks in at 5:55, is for him.

Espinoza says that for him, Treble and Tremble represents a significant advance, but that he is still not as good as he wants to be. "You know, on both ends, the production side is getting stronger and stronger and more refined, and it's kind of the same thing with the songs. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Your ears get stronger and you start trusting yourself a little more. Melody comes through. More like I said, I'm trying to be more honest with myself." But, he added, "I'm still far away from being where I could be... which is a good thing. I think that if I was ever like, 'oh, you know, I've made it,' I might as well not be doing this anymore."

Earlimart are touring the South and West Coast through the end of December. For complete dates, see Earlimart's section of the Palm Pictures Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, December 13, 2004]

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