ay cause drowsiness, headaches, or sexual side effects. Yes, I know. The usual suspects. This time that squealing headache or deaf-and-blind member may just come from overexposure to one of the most overused trends in recent indie music. No, not New York new wave. Electropop. Perhaps we’ve become immune to this persistent electro-tinkering, as accustomed to it as seventies music fans were to bashing cymbal crashes and androgynous leading men. Brows no longer arch at the silky synthesis of split-up synth beats and guitars. And, still, using these otherwise tired sounds and following recent guides like The Postal Service or Holopaw, a band like The Elected can make an album that is utterly enticing, rearranging nothing and relying solely upon a compelling placement of known virtues.
Fronted by Rilo Kiley’s Blake Sennett, The Elected nimbly straddle the electro/organic fence with a stark blend of bubbly electronic rhythms and dusty, cowpoke guitars. This is Saddle Creek brand country music put to the mechanical whims of in-house producer Mike Mogis and collaborator Jimmy Tamborello. The inclusion of gurgling e-drums or crackling static never distracts from the songs themselves, but serves to pinion this bastard-child country music to the beat aesthetic of the twenty-first century. The songs shimmer with flatland sunshine, but the breaks in pace and altitude provided by the electronics splice the album into segments more palatable than the straight-and-narrow beds on which they lie. Never so pronounced as to grate or so hesistant as to go unnoticed, this smooth union makes the album incalculably more enjoyable than the sum of its parts.
After a faux intro of juggling static and operatic samples, “7 September 2003” rolls into a bucolic lament with bleeding slide guitars and hoedown drums. It floats with a river-rafting repose, reminiscent of the daily drift of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Sennett’s husky sweet voice feels sunburned and weary, and it suits the tale perfectly.
The machine rhythms of “My Baby’s a Dick” vibrate underneath more moaning slide guitar and the dry-wood sound of fragile banjoes. At the moment you become accustomed to its sublime gurgle, it shifts gear into a prototypical Saddle Creek charge. Organic drums clatter over the percolating electronics before giving way to a synth line that closes the track with the remnants of its mournful air still intact.
Waltzing with Harry Nilsson strings and circus horns, “Don’t Get Your Hopes Up” is a pompous strut that would have Chang and Eng, the geek, the bearded woman, and the contortionist all dancing an absinthe-glowing free-for-all in the peanut-shelled, sticky-sanded after-hours of the freak tent. A break from the rollicking pastorals of the first four tracks, it serves as the album’s star-gazing intermission; from here, it moves towards a safer indie-pop sound.
This is where The Elected runs into trouble. As a more straight-forward popular sound sands down the edges of their music, one influence in particular begins to show an uncomfortably large influence. Sennett’s lyrics, typically mementoes of wistful regret and reconsideration, start to dip into the choirboy furies of label-mate Conor Oberst. I enjoy Oberst in small doses, but in the same way I enjoy old Led Zeppelin records and can’t stomach hearing anyone else try to recapture their mythic grind, so should Oberst’s voice remain beyond imitation. The Elected come unsettlingly close to emotive piracy on the bitter delivery of “A Time for Emily,” and the chimes on “Go On” are used to build toward the same trembling peak and throaty caterwauling that we saw so often on Lifted.
Still, these seem like minor complaints in the face of such a charming album. Me First is a willowy supplement to Sennett’s work with Rilo Kiley, but like the best side projects, it’s a work you can visit in a state of tabula rasa, with nary a thought to the past or future of his material. He may not be the first to mix the bucolic with the mechanic, and God knows he won’t be the last, but here all the symptoms of overexposure sink under the unassuming grace of his gifts.