Reviews Search

Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, "On the Echoing Green"

cover imageWhen I first heard the absolutely gorgeous lead single ("A Song of Summer") from On The Echoing Green, I started salivating immediately about the prospect of an entire album in that vein, as it seemed like Cantu-Ledesma had finally transformed his experimental guitar shimmer into pure dreampop/shoegaze heaven (a direction he had been headed for a while).  One thing I failed to fully register at the time, however, was that the delirious pop bliss of "A Song of Summer" was stretched out for a very un-pop eleven goddamn minutes.  That curious and arguably self-sabotaging decision more or less summarizes this entire release, as Echoing Green is not so much a dreamy and hook-filled pop masterpiece so much as it is yet another characteristically abstract and experimental guitar album from Jefre (albeit one with a handful of riffs and melodies that plenty of more accessible artists would happily kill for).  That said, the few fully formed songs capture Cantu-Ledesma at the absolute peak of his powers, even if Echoing Green as a whole falls shy of the lushly beautiful pop breakthrough that it could have been.

Mexican Summer

The unusual way that Echoing Green was composed and recorded goes a long way towards explaining why it ultimately took the shape it did.  Most notably, this is the first of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma's solo albums in which he is backed by an approximation of a full band, although it is more like a shifting ensemble of like-minded multi-instrumentalists.  To fully get the most spontaneity and organic magic from this atypically collaborative endeavor, Cantu-Ledesma began the sessions with no songs already demoed.  He definitely had a strong general vision though, as all of the more song-like pieces are very much shaped by his blearily twinkling guitar shimmer and his love of sparse, slow-motion drum machine beats.  Obviously, the downside to composing an album in such a live and collaborative fashion is that tight songcraft and structure tend to be sacrificed in favor of vamping on a theme.  Echoing Green definitely does not avoid that peril, though Cantu-Ledesma and his cohorts do manage to keep one of the album's stronger singles ("Tenderness") to a comparatively lean 5-minutes.  "Tenderness" is also notable for a couple of other reasons, both quite favorable.  For one, it is one of the two pieces to feature Argentinian vocalist Paula Garcia (Sobrenadar), who arguably plays the largest role of anyone in elevating the album’s highlights into something evoking classic 4AD dreampop nirvana.  Speaking of 4AD, the other significant feature of "Tenderness" is that it is one of the strongest distillations of Cantu-Ledesma’s "Cocteau Twins-plus-killer-guitar-hooks" aesthetic.

"A Song of Summer" is the true centerpiece of the album, however, reprising everything that is wonderful about "Tenderness" with an even stronger bent-string guitar hook and a lovely swirl of lush synthesizer work from Arp's Alexis Georgopolus.  Granted, the excessive length makes it a flawed masterpiece rather than an outright one, but there are far worse crimes than dissolving into an extended trebly haze of guitar noise (especially if it eventually coheres into a blurred and spectral reprise of the central theme for the outro).  "The Faun" performs a similar feat of sweeping Romanticism and cool guitars, impressively managing to stay dynamic and melodic enough to make me forget that there is no vocalist.  As for the remaining songs, they are not necessarily weaker material, but they are a lot less song-like.  That is an odd thing for me to grumble about, as I have loved Cantu-Ledesma's purely instrumental albums in the past and I always enjoy tape experiments, but the high proportion of more experimentally minded, incidental fare gives Echoing Green a somewhat unfinished and uneven feel.  Most are brief texture or mood pieces, alternating between languorous and tender chorus-heavy arpeggios, cryptic field recordings, snarls of noise, and celebrations of tape hiss, but there is one more substantial piece near the end of the album: "Dancers At The Spring."  Curiously, it takes a very different tone than the other major pieces, opting for a more shuffling, understated, meandering, and stark approach.  It is certainly enjoyable, but errs a bit too much on the side of "pastoral" for me.

This is the rare album that somehow manages to simultaneously exceed my expectations and leave me feeling unsatisfied and exasperated.  Regarding the latter, I have an unavoidable tendency to judge artists who I actively follow a bit more critically than those I do not, but Echoing Green objectively feels like a missed opportunity to me: when I hear the heights Cantu-Ledesma hits in "A Song of Summer," I cannot help but feel that this could have been a strong Album of the Year contender with a bit more work.  Instead, it seems like this ensemble found the perfect formula for greatness, made a few jamming variations on it, then moved on to filling the rest of the album with brief soundscapes and interludes.  I wish I could have volunteered to buy them more studio time.  On the plus side, I had absolutely no idea I could even expect something like "A Song of Summer" from Cantu-Ledesma, as I would have been perfectly happy with another instrumental album.  Thanks to a pair of would-be perfect pop songs, my expectation are now hopelessly recalibrated.  That is definitely a good thing, which I suppose makes On the Echoing Green an uneven yet fitfully transcendent album.