In the field of “confessional” artists, a fine line exists between authenticity and pretense. When combined well, the familiar mixture of breathy vocals, rich production, smart melodies and personal/ironic/tragic lyrics can result in some poignant work. When combined poorly, the results can be self-indulgent and exclusive. To my ears, Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst are two prominent examples of artists who successfully toe this line. Blake Sennett (Rilo Kiley) leads his new L.A. based project, the Elected, into this often-deadly realm of self-reflection and unabashed precociousness, and navigates this terrain well. In their inaugural effort, Me First, the Elected has produced a solid, melodic record, and a fine addition to the field.
Sennett employs good company on Me First. The core of the Elected includes Mike Bloom, Daniel Brummel (Ozma) and Jason Boesel (Rilo Kiley). Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley, Cursive), Orenda Fink (Azure Ray) and Tiffany Kowalski (Bright Eyes, Sweep the Leg Johnny) add background vocals and instrumentation to round out the mix.
Me First‘s liner-note “thank yous” express gratitude to Elliott Smith, “whose limitless kindness and beauty will never be forgotten.” This fondness — at least in a stylistic sense — is clear in Sennett’s vocals, which can be plotted on the earnestness chart somewhere between Smith and Oberst (Point of interest: Sennett contributed vocals on Bright Eye’s latest album, Lifted …).
“Greetings in Braille” is one of several tracks that combine Sennett’s engaging voice and his gift for song composition. This relaxed, beautiful track opens with a tingling mix of guitar-picking and reverb-laden harmonica. The Oberst/Smith connection continues in the song’s melodically-sweet delivery of melancholy material: “If my senses fail, stay with me ’til they go / ‘Cause I don’t want to be alone … And if you see me, down at the liquor store, please don’t tell my dad. / And if you see my dad, down at the liquor store, don’t tell me anything at all.” The themes — mothers, fathers, pills, coldness, drunkenness, love — evoke Oberst’s and Smith’s own self-tortured oeuvres. But Sennett introduces these elements into his songs neatly enough so that Me First establishes an autonomous personality.
This is not a gloomy personality. The lyrics are often despairing (“my sister still cuts her arm … “), but the pastiche of picture-postcard memories and attractive melodies allow a subtle but definite warmth to rise from Me First.
The production helps form Me First‘s personality. Mike Mogis (Azure Ray, Bright Eyes), Sennett and Bloom all have a hand in the production, which adds depth and space to the tracks. The pedal-steel on “A Response to Greed” takes form like a fog sprawling over L.A., while the lap-steel in “7 September 2003” sounds as if it was recorded in a well. The electronic effects that drift around the edges on Me First step to the forefront in the mid-song sequencing breakdown on “Go On.” And rather than sounding like electro for electro’s sake, this deviation serves to complicate and enlarge the track. Overall, the album possesses a surprisingly ethereal texture. But Sennett retains control of the charming melodies at each song’s core, which helps to keep the swirling embellishments from smothering the tracks.
With the exception “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up” (with its show-tune rat-a-tat-tat drum beat, churning synthesizers, whistling and glitzy sax solo), all of the tracks on Me First work well together. Simply put: The Elected has created a well built and consistent album. This consistency (and relaxed tempo) may be cause for criticism. But I suggest that this is part of each track’s allure: each song stands on its own, building upon the others to create something larger.