Released July 1, 2016
Review by Melanie Stangl
Local electronic heavyweight Emerson Jay describe their sound on their Facebook as “synths, guitars, drum crisps and sunlight.” Their brand new 5-song release, LOUIE (which stands for Love Offers Understanding In Everything), delivers all this and so much more. It’s a gorgeous, dreamy EP that balances catchy pop sensibilities with engrossing layers of sound, creative twists in both melody and instrumental effects, and mesmerizing, imaginative beats. It’s a fun, groovy soundtrack for dancing or driving that doesn’t shy away from lyrical dexterity or subtle, gradual builds. Its contradictions (such as the first track, a cheery-sounding tune whose lyrics seem to address a friend who has relapsed into drug addiction, or 80’s-reminiscent elements that contribute to an unmistakably modern sound) provide complexity rather than confusion. Careful attention has obviously been paid to each element: this is an act who knows exactly what sound they want and how to get it. LOUIE is a cohesive, summery, blissed-out ride you’ll want to take over and over again.
Emerson Jay’s primary creative force is Jared Gulden, but three bandmates help make the studio sound come to life onstage: Brandon Bates on guitar, Pat Donovan on drums, and Dan Evans on bass. Since 2014 they’ve put out four singles and one six-song release, T H E E P, with the more recent track “Move” garnering nearly 160,000 streams on Spotify. Their talent has snagged them slots opening for such notable acts as HAIM, Robert Delong, Lotus, and Goldroom. Luckily for us, though, their headlining shows are still at more accessible places such as Club Café and, as part of the Deutschtown Music Festival on July 9th, The Modern Café on the North Side. You’ll want to catch them at intimate places like these before the rest of the world discovers their particular brand of electronic ecstasy.
“When It’s Night” starts the EP on a happy, upbeat note, with instrumentals that are sweet without being cloying. Its shimmering exterior contrasts the serious lyrics, in which the speaker appears to be talking to a friend who has resumed a dangerous lifestyle they used to share: “Tell me baby, is this really all you think that you were made for?/You sure, ‘cause this doesn’t add up/About a year ago you stood in front of all of us to make sure/that you’d never pick it back up.” Phrases such as “we swore we’d find a way back while holding hands/in the back of that ambulance,” “things that we once loved to share,” and “what you’re trying to hide” aren’t what you pick up on in the first listen, but prove that there’s more to this act than what initially meets the ear. They’re delivered by Gulden’s versatile voice (which skillfully handles not only a wide melodic range with his impressively-controlled falsetto, but various degrees of electronic distortion) and wrapped up in high, cheery synth hooks. The song’s natural flow and shrewd use of repetition are Emerson Jay trademarks, and will be seen again in the songs ahead.
“TRU” is a chill, head-nodding, midtempo number whose lyrics deal with the isolation and insecurity that accompany overthinking: “I feel like I’m on the outside of this room,” “At times I don’t fit in/at times I really wanted to,” and “But if I try too hard to understand, then would I be, would I be staying tru-u-u-ue?” It’s driven by a fantastic bass line, laid over a beat that alternatingly attacks and backs down with 80’s-esque snare drum sounds. This mellows out slightly at the beginning of the chorus, melting into an insistent (but not rushed) kick drum rhythm which aligns with the drawn-out melodic rise and fall of the song’s titular word. This drawing-out of a single word (as well as its exquisite cluster of vocal harmonies) is a sharp contrast to the fast-paced, rhythmically complex nature of almost all the other lyrics. The divergence seems purposeful. It epitomizes the song’s message of how much easier things are when you relax and are honest with yourself instead of getting caught up in your head, which is also summed up in the hook: “Say what you wanna say, as long as you are true.” Steel drum sounds (or their electronic equivalent) occasionally float on top, mimicking the hook’s melody, and proving EJ’s natural instinct for layering to achieve sonic bliss.
Next up is “Perspective,” a soundtrack for a fun, unworried drive to the beach. It draws you in with a pretty, rhythmic marimba pattern at the beginning, then immediately hits you with relentless lyrical dexterity in the verses. This is balanced with slower, repeated words and dreamy synth arrangements in the prechorus and chorus, for a back-and-forth of build-up and reprieve that still feels focused and flows well. The lyrics revolve around making the best of a bad situation, and viewing others as partners rather than competition: “If we look at how we separate ourselves/but what if we, became, a team, and tried, to work, our way, to better things?” and “But sometimes from down here/I finally see clear/as everyone’s looking down…Well maybe we’re looking up now.” The brief instrumental break a minute-and-a-half in highlights a distinct guitar riff and swooping, distorted synths: there’s a lot going on, but it’s cohesive rather than cluttered. This makes the stripped-down portion, beginning at 2:20 with sustained chords, all the more welcome in contrast. The beautiful thing Emerson Jay does is make all these conscious, complex choices feel so natural: all you have to do is jam to the delightful finished product.
“Fake It Slow” is another case of contrasts: an ode to a romance that the speaker is definitely not feeling anymore, packaged with weirdly cutesy, distorted high-pitched synth melodies (that still work), harmony-heavy, dreamy “oo-OO-ooh”‘s, and a driving, relentless underbeat, that’s paralleled in the thrumming bass notes. Sonically it’s like dancing on a cotton candy cloud or floating on a serene sea. Lyrically it’s “He’s Just Not That Into You”: “And I don’t wanna give you my heart, but you won’t let it go/Some people want it all, but I can’t/’cause I can’t give it back, give it back,” and “I could find a better way to say it, but I don’t care/The joy I get after removing myself from you is just not fair.” It’s bliss and dissatisfaction in close contact, which is interesting, and speaks to both the uncomfortable nature of communicating these feelings and the relief felt once the deed is done. As skillful as EJ is at constructing sounds, they also know when to employ quieter moments, such as the subdued second prechorus and when transitioning from the bridge into the final choruses. This is a valuable skill, and it shows in the song’s intuitive flow.
Wrapping up LOUIE is the gorgeous “Light Out,” a standout among standouts. The incredibly dance-friendly beat and sparkling, futuristic synths give the feeling of driving down a celestial highway. The encouragement is also found lyrically, cementing the track’s mood-lifting spell: “Well you know the way now, so don’t put your light out/In search for a purpose to show that you’re worth it/And we know you are.” The word “are” is stretched out, repeated, and electronically distorted in a rhythmically satisfying way over the entrancing beat. Particularly great is the gradual instrumental build after the second chorus. These immersive builds are one of EJ’s key strengths: in this case, subtly adding layers of synth and more distorted vocal “ooh’s”, slowly increasing the intensity, until a drum clap brings you back to a quieter rendition of the chorus, before exploding into the beat’s full energetic glory. Punctuated with robotic, buzzy “and we know you are’s” that almost recall Daft Punk, it’s a dazzling finish to a great record.
The timing of this release couldn’t be better suited for the season. LOUIE is an enthralling EP that should be the electronic pop soundtrack to your summer. It’s now available on Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify. And don’t miss Emerson Jay’s performance at Deutschtown Music Festival, at 11 PM on Saturday, July 9th at The Modern Café on the North Side. They also open for PVRIS, along with Nevada Color, at one of the Altar Bar’s last concerts on July 24th, but the show is currently sold out.