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Music Review: U.S. Elevator – Handsome Sea EP

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When I first heard the husband-and-wife team of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, they were the first duo to take the stage one night during the last “Guthrie Family Rides Again” tour. They told stories and sang gentle folk songs as the stage filled with more and more Guthries of varying generations until they were joined by the family patriarch, Arlo Guthrie. Naturally, throughout the evening, the tribe’s concert mixed in songs by the man who started it all, Arlo’s dad, Woody.

With a pedigree like this, I couldn’t have been more surprised when I heard the music of U.S. Elevator. This group is a collaboration between Sarah Lee, Irion, and San Francisco producers, The Rondo Brothers, also known as Diamond Jim (Jim Greer) and The Bastard Prince (Brandon Arnovick). Earlier this year, I experienced their first EP, A Valentine, which included covers of Jules Shear’s “All Through the Night,” Liz Phair’s “Never Said,” and another ethereal offering, “Looking for You.” Psychedelic might not be the best term to describe the expansive sounds, but perhaps new age? Experimental? Certainly not folk, folk/rock, Americana or roots. Well, they call themselves “beat-folk.” Ah, ok

Now, their third EP is out, Handsome Sea, featuring Gene Clark’s “For A Spanish Guitar” and Harry Nilsson’s “Me and My Arrow.” Listening to “For A Spanish Guitar,” I kept thinking of the band Harpers Bizarre who had a hit in 1967 with Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Like U.S. Elevator, Harpers Bizarre used multi-layered vocals and were unfairly labeled “Sunshine Pop,” whatever that means. Yes, Harpers Bizarre sounded happy, clearly knew their way around the recording studio, and were perhaps too subtly sophisticated to be easily defined in any meaningful way. So too is U.S. Elevator.

The Harpers Bizarre/U.S. Elevator musical connection is a tad more overt on “Me and My Arrow.” Nilsson was not only covered by the earlier band, he served as an arranger and session player for them. A fellow practitioner in high-range layered vocals himself, I have no doubt he’d appreciate Elevator’s treatment of his song, especially with all the—I’ll use the word—psychedelic tricks that make this track a real nugget worth exploring more than once.

So far, Handsome Sea contains my favorite U.S. Elevator tunes, even if I don’t understand their use of the term EP. Don’t two songs make for a single? Whatever vocabulary you like, I’d say give these songs a try. Perhaps you too will find yourself feeling groovy.

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About Wesley Britton