I’ve made no bones about my wariness toward musical overproduction, how quickly it can swamp a well-meaning band. It’s hard for rock to bring on the strings without letting go of some edge. Of course, that doesn’t mean a band should be dismissed as mundane the minute it adds a cello. We especially can’t blame Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart for accentuating pretty production. Dude owns his own studio, the Ship, where he’s helped beautify countless other bands’ albums. And even if his own band’s new album tips into too much ornamentation at times, that in no way makes it bad.
Careful craftsman that he is, Espinoza obviously put a lot of thought into tracking Mentor Tormentor. Seems he really wanted to grab the listener at first, because the album is frontloaded with stellar songs. “Fakey Fake” starts things off nervously, slowly building up from Espinoza’s feint whispers until he’s joined by big drumming and pretty harmonies from Ariana Murray (the only other constant member of Earlimart). Murray gets to handle “Happy Alone” largely on her own. (Espinoza has claimed it to be the first song Murray wrote all by herself. She’s long overdue for a solo album.) Over Jon Brion-producing-Aimee Mann piano work, Murray drops ace lines like, “Call in the air strike/ Tell ’em to make the drop/ Initiate a sequence/ Only you can stop,” and, “Even the stopped clock on the wall is right two times a day.”
The album’s midsection gets bogged down in songs that sound too similar: more lovely piano, more soft cooing, too many gimmicky studio effects. The sound of a submerged piano that dominates “Don’t Think About Me” and “The World” only shows how Elliott Smith used to do the same thing better. (Plying that connection further could get tricky, because Espinoza was good friends with Smith before his untimely death, so let’s just leave that be.)
To Espinoza’s credit, he gets Mentor Tormentor back on track. Stultifying somberness is left behind for a lighter mood on “Nothing Is True,” complete with a catchy whistling line. And closer “Cold Cold Heaven” is a big sing-along on which Earlimart is joined in the studio by bands Espinoza has done production work for, such as Irving and the Watson Twins. So, sure, it’s unashamedly big and lush and beautiful. Much like most of Mentor Tormentor.