These United States

A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden

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So-called Johnny Appleseed descendant Jesse Elliott is stuck in a sometimes pleasant, sometimes obnoxiously pretentious rut on this album whose rather goofy title should scare anyone who wouldn't be interested in the album's equally overdone lyrics. Elliott clearly sees himself as some sort of poetic chronicler of roadside America here, offering up 12 verbose, loungey explorations of American life. But any insights are lost behind a reliance on painfully rhymed clichés and grade-school caliber metaphors. Elliott's got a good voice and strong delivery; both his voice and the processing effects are reminiscent of M. Ward, and that's not a bad thing at all. But Elliott and multi-instrumentalist/producer David Strackany can't match the melodies of Ward. That's fine on atmospheric twinklers like the standouts "Preface: Painless" and "Diving Boards Pointed at the Sky," but most of the album suffers from weak hooks supported by painful alliteration and cringe-worthy imagery. Lines like "I got a big brand new Cadillac of pain" and "toting ten tons of magenta and red, and the gentleman said what the gentleman said" crop up too frequently. One song ends with Elliott calling himself a lonely butcher, and the very next song ends with a line about "the lonely devil." He's talking about the devil being lonely. It's very hard in these post-ironic times to get away with such overreaching, meaninglessly poetic lyrics. And many will perhaps find the line between art and artifice trod upon too heavily. But that doesn't mean Elliott isn't a likable chap. It's just hard to believe in the wordy narrator persona he puts on here. With a better editing pen, fewer desperate rhymes, and certainly less reliance on clichés, there's certainly potential for These United States to make great art. This, though, is the kind of nice, safe album a listener wants to like badly, but whose flaws ultimately leave one fumbling for the skip button on repeat listens.

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