- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

These United States
Everything Touches Everything
United Interests

With its third full-length studio release, the D.C.- based These United States is aiming squarely at the roots-rock mainstream.

The quirky intelligence of songwriter and bandleader Jesse Elliott is still on display, but it’s tethered to a rousing, guileless musical sensibility. Mr. Elliott previously was wont to shoehorn long, discursive lyrics into too-short melodic spaces. On “Everything Touches Everything,” he adopts a less busy approach, not because he has less to say but perhaps because he’s trying to be heard.

The album was recorded in the District around the time of President Obama’s inauguration, and the relentless optimism that attended that historic moment suffuses many of the songs. Though this is not a political album by any stretch, the song “Will It Ever,” with lines such as “Surrender to a limitless sky,” captures the widespread rapture of that time remarkably well. Even the mournful pedal-steel solo sounds enthusiastic and upbeat. “Will It Ever” also shows, by virtue of its status as an inaugural artifact, how much the national mood can change in the span of a few months. In the chorus, Mr. Elliott offers a prescient note of caution, singing, “Will it ever be this good again?”

The track “I Want You to Keep Everything” has the halting drumbeat and guitar attack of a classic U2 song, perhaps as channeled by the Strokes. It’s a breakup song with a generous or heartless message, depending on how you read it. Mr. Elliott opens, singing, “Over/Baby we’re over/That river.” He lingers over the words, drawing them out as if unfurling a flag. When his rhymes get a little fussy and mannered, he has a tendency to devolve into a half-spoken delivery, but overall, his voice is more powerful and more tuneful than on previous efforts.

For better for worse (mostly better, in my view) there’s a stylistic consistency from song to song. Because they draw from the deep well of roots-oriented rock, a listener is apt to discern familiar influences in every song. “End” kicks off a little like David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs.” The guitar riff from the title track sounds like a deconstructed version of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” On “Conquest & Consequence” — the title summons images of grim undergraduate seminars on post-colonial politics — Mr. Elliott warbles in a gruff falsetto to a cheery, distortion-inflected guitar that sounds like Pavement covering Roy Orbison. There is a hint of “American Beauty”-era Grateful Dead in the acoustic-electric blues mix on the ambitious and infectious track “I’m Gonna Assemble a City.”

These United States risks sounding like an everyday bar band with its easygoing, throwback approach. There are no obvious signifiers — no sawing cello or ringing glockenspiel to alert listeners to the presence of alt-rock genius at work. But Mr. Elliott’s own idiosyncratic lyricism emerges unbidden from behind the blare of guitars and manages to charm without calling too much attention to itself.

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