There is something about the west coast, particularly California, that spawns subtle, melodic pop music and cynicism. Beginning with Jackson Browne and in some ways coming full circle with the relocation of the late Elliott Smith, there has also been a tradition of unheralded (or, in Smith’s case, under-heralded) singer/songwriters earnestly plugging away at their dark, intelligent, and deceptively beautiful music. Earlimart—now comprised of the serendipitously named Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray—have been gradually growing into this same sound. Early records have already earned comparisons to Elliott Smith, now their sound has grown more lush and has appropriately expanded into the territory of Jackson Browne, but not—thankfully—the Eagles, who nearly ruined California pop for everyone but my dad.
Earlimart’s take on California pop is much more dense than the traditional variety. Stripped to their core, the songs’ melancholic melodies and plaintive guitars would not sound much out of place next to the old school of beach front songsters, but these base elements are always gently ensconced in a wash of synthesized strings with flourishes of piano and a strong, processed drumbeat backbone. They have fleshed out their sound while softening it at the same time. The result is strangely anachronistic. If stripped of some of the more modern instrumentation and electronic burbles, Mentor Tormentor could be an album from nearly any decade from the 1960s (or even 50s) onward.
This sort of pre-emptive nostalgia that Mentor Tormentor triggers works well with Earlimart’s already wistful and contemplative tenor. Hearing these songs for the first time, I find myself longingly remembering the first time I heard them. Even though it was only moments ago, it feels like ages. It’s symptomatic of a generation feeling old before their time. “Everyone I know / Is running out of love” Espinoza coos, a particularly world weary sentiment from such a relatively young voice. Perhaps its our accelerated culture that is putting us through the emotions of a lifetime in a scant couple of decades (which is partially to blame for the newly coined “quarter-life crisis” of the sort Zach Braff experiences with every new film, but I digress). The music of Mentor Tormentor captures this phenomenon nicely, continuing the California pop tradition of shrouding the biting and bitter in the beautiful (see Warren Zevon and Randy Newman).
If Earlimart’s Mentor Tormentor suffers in anyway, it is from the usual symptoms of prolonged artistic gestation, namely overloading. It overshoots the goal of a perfect album by about two or three songs, which come in the middle of the album, locking into a holding pattern of low key ballads, each beautiful in their own right, that unfortunately bog down the momentum of an otherwise dynamic album. Still Mentor Tormentor is remarkable as an album that sees Earlimart growing without losing any ground, a tough trick to pull on an album so slickly produced.