By all accounts, the first two albums from These United States are lyrically ambitious and musically sparse, unveiling songwriter Jesse Elliott as a flawed-but-promising creator of progressive folk-rock.
Which makes listening to the band's new album, “Everything Touches Everything,” that much more surprising.
Released earlier this month, “Everything” is a punchy piece of joyous rock 'n' roll, not too far removed from the group's twangier beginnings, but noticeably cranked up a notch or two. The album is as solid as a rock, a confident step forward that sounds like Elliott is announcing his arrival as a songwriter to watch.
Certainly, Elliott didn't intend to make such a statement, but he does acknowledge that These United States — performing Tuesday in Bend (see “If you go”) — has evolved into a louder, more dynamic outfit.
“We've definitely been morphing who we are and what we do in the last couple years,” he said from the back of a van somewhere between Missouri and Colorado. “We're a band of five permanent members now, and I think as the lineup has solidified it's kind of allowed us to do more of what we probably wanted to do all along.”
Indeed, Elliott began These United States as more of a musical project than a band, with rotating members and a fickle aesthetic. Over the past couple years, however, he has added players — some from Washington, D.C., some from Lexington, Ky. — and for the most part, they've stuck around.
“I think with that territory comes the ability to make more bombastic noise,” Elliott said. “We all have pretty deep roots in everything from, like, punk to prog and back again. I guess we just have sort of omnivorous taste, and that comes out in what we do.”
Also emanating from the band's music: what Spin magazine called “the overwhelming jolt of simply being alive.” That comes through when talking to Elliott, too; he's clearly a guy who enjoys the road, the world and people. Before he started making songs for a living, he worked in other creative mediums (film, long-form writing). He's a fount of ideas, with “several albums kind of running around” his head at the moment, he said.
In fact, “Everything Touches Everything” could've looked and sounded very different. The band spent 2008 on the road, soaking in peoples' views about the then-upcoming presidential election. With so many songs at their fingertips (“literally a couple hundred,” Elliott says), the guys decided to let the voters decide the direction of their new record.
“It was kind of just a fun game that we were playing with ourselves,” Elliott said. “It occurred to me that we had these two albums (we could do) that were very different. One was sort of dark and somber and atmospheric, with longer songs, and there was something a little heavier about it. (And one) was kind of the lighter, more over the top, exuberant (record).”
Light and exuberant won out, and the band recorded “Everything,” which Elliott said is not a political statement toward one candidate or the other, but is supposed to reflect the “emotional undercurrent” of post-election America.
“Last year was a really interesting year to be on the road and we heard a lot of people thinking a lot of different things in a lot of different places we went,” he said. “We just thought it'd be fun to kind of leave the outcome of our own album up to the mood of the people, if you will. How do people feel, and how can we reflect that?”
Now, it's time to go out and play for those people and push that record. Touring is a notoriously difficult process (outside the time on stage), but Elliott seems to handle it better than most. And he has an interesting attitude about the music he makes, and his built-in need to put it in front of others.
“Some of it comes from a sense of urgency in a weird way,” he said. “I don't want to get too morbid or anything, but death is hanging over all of us every day of our lives and I think while stuff is in your head and you're alive, I kind of feel like you owe it to the world to just keep getting it out there.
“I don't mean the world, like, the clamoring public masses who are gobbling up millions of our records or anything like that, because I don't think that world exists yet,” he continued. “But just to the world in the larger sense, you know? This is our two cents. This is what we owe, karmically, I suppose, for having been lucky enough to do what we do.”