Turn a frown upside down

The Essex Green offers an antidote to gray days and bad moods

Thirty-seven years ago Paul McCartney observed, 'I'm in love and it's a sunny day.' While certainly not the most profound morsel that ever fell from the Beatles' table, there is a definite resonance in its innocent simplicity.

The Essex Green is a trio from Brooklyn, N.Y., that seems to have picked up this particular crumb and fashioned it into a beatific and bountiful picnic.

Listen to the band's new record, 'The Long Goodbye' (Merge Records), and it's nearly impossible to remain in a sullen mood, even as CNN brings us video of some new calamity. It's the musical equivalent of St. John's wort.

'That's good to hear,' says keyboardist and singer Sasha Bell, who's calling from a noisy van somewhere between Georgia and Florida. 'I don't think music should ever take a back seat to hard times. It's here to be heard and appreciated no matter what the circumstances. To provide some kind of release or escape is a challenge for any art form.'

The music plied by the Essex Green has been described as psychedelic pop but more accurately it seems to stem from bygone AM radio days. Bell's vocals on songs such as 'By the Sea' and 'Sorry River' have an amiable, normal-girl quality, even while she's in the midst of some uncanny and beguiling melody. There are no crazy Whitney Houston vocal gymnastics here, just genuine, open friendliness, like something from Petula Clark or Lulu.

'That's funny,' Bell says. 'We're touring for the first time with our friend Ben Crumb, who's playing bass with us. It's his first chance to hang out with us up close, all the time. He said the other day, 'I can't believe how friendly and nice you guys are.' Hopefully our good nature will stand up to a lot of touring.'

Guitarist and singer Christopher Ziter's vocals provide a sturdy male counterpoint with a delivery that is equally effortless and easygoing, recalling the classy pop crooning of Harry Nilsson. And the group harmonies always manage to soar and radiate benign energy.

The band's casual sophistication leaps into the shuffling of instruments as well. The Greens mix a typical array of guitars and drums with such unusual suspects as flute, xylophone and even dueling French horns on 'Whetherman.'

Not only does the Essex Green sport a sound that flies in the face of mainstream music, but even the normally dour indie-rock crowd is having to get used to something that's earnest and optimistic without being ironic.

'Early on when we were touring, I'd look out at audiences and see some puzzled looks,' Bell says. 'But gradually they'd get into it. We usually win over audiences even when they weren't expecting something like us.'

Probably the most surprising thing about the Essex Green is the utter lack of calculation and contrivance that surrounds it. With songs that have been compared to everyone from the Left Banke to the Mamas and the Papas to Fairport Convention, one would assume that the musicians were working from some kind of time-tested blueprint derived from all-night skull sessions spent listening to esoteric old vinyl.

'Nope, not at all,' Bell counters. 'We all love music from the '60s, especially the really melodic stuff, and Jeff (guitarist Baron) used to work in a used record store, so he has a big vinyl collection. We definitely explore older music and groups rather than trying keep up with whatever's current.

'But there was no deliberate thought process going into this band,' she says. 'It's just an expression of the kind of musical relationship that we have together. It's always melody first.'

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