After a long, long break between albums, the Essex Green's Hardly Electronic kicks off with a song that instantly reminds listeners why the band was so great in its prime. "Sloane Ranger" is classic Essex Green with its loping rhythm, gently strummed guitars, naggingly catchy organ, and above all the voices of Christopher Ziter and Sasha Bell singing the tender lyrics with heartfelt sweetness and woody soul. It's an auspicious start that the rest of the record follows up on and then some. The time off has done nothing to dim the writing and arranging skills the band had honed to a fine point; if anything, the time off seems to have given them a little more urgency and focus. Hardly Electronic feels like their overall best-sounding album, with a sonic richness that belies the somewhat fragmented nature of its recording. With members in different parts of the country and in different stages of life, it's hard to get the band together for weeks at a time to make a record. They definitely found a way around their hurdles and have come up with a rich and full-sounding album that feels like a throwback to the golden age of indie chamber pop, while still feeling smack up to date, as the track "Don't Leave It in Our Hands," which has punk energy, shouted vocals, and a desperate political undertone, shows. The interplay between Ziter and Bell's vocals is a highlight, the guitar work of Jeff Baron is economically exciting, and the little bits of arrangement magic (the billowing vocal harmonies on "January Says," the thrilling liftoff on the chorus of "Catatonic," the cornpone guitar licks on "Bye Bye Crow") sprinkled throughout the album make for a delightful listen. Even when Bell's songs take a dark turn, as they often do, or when the band leans hard into melancholy, the album has a lightness that makes it easy to digest and a joy to get lost in. It's close to being their best work, if not right there, and it's certainly a joy to hear Bell's enchanting vocals again. Just like it's a treat to experience the relaxed majesty the band lends to the production and arrangement of its songs; just like it's truly heartwarming to follow the ups and downs of the moods the band sends through the speakers so gracefully. The Essex Green may the kind of under-the-radar band that could disappear for a decade without too many people wondering where they had gone; one spin of Hardly Electronic is enough to make that seem like a mistake. The record is good enough, and the band skilled enough, that even one year without a new album from them would feel like an eternity.
AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra