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The Mood of a Nation: These United States, August 17 at Huckleberry’s PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 12 August 2009 12:27

These United States

There's nothing directly political about Everything Touches Everything, the third album from These United States. But the record could be called the five-piece band's Obama collection, even though you'd be hard-pressed to find more than hints of that in the content.

It's not nearly as precious or knee-jerk as it sounds. It's not a Pollyannaish perspective, and there are no unicorns or rainbows. It's more about a mood.

The questioning refrain of "Night & the Revolution" is tellingly ambiguous -- "How do you think this night is going to conclude?" is paired with "Where do you think this revolution is going to go?" -- and it seems more about a party than partisanship.

But as songwriter/singer/guitarist Jesse Elliott was assembling the record, he decided that its song selection would hinge on the outcome of the election. The album that will be released on September 1 is significantly different from the one that would be released had John McCain won.

Download Embed Embed this video on your site "I Want You to Keep Everything," from Everything Touches Everything

"The issue wasn't the candidates, really," Elliott said in a recent phone interview, in advance of his band's August 17 performance at Huckleberry's. "It was just kind of how people felt about what was going on." And while change is a theme on Everything Touches Everything, it reflects both the good and bad that attend a cultural shift.

"This is the album that is about change or turnover or whatever you want to call it," he said. As for the McCain record, "It was a little bit darker of an album. It wasn't sad or depressing ... . [It was about] tradition or something. Something more rooted, for better and for worse, as well."

Jesse Elliott

The songs weren't written with those concepts in mind. Rather, preparing the album was a process of "combining and re-combining them [existing songs] until they made sense. ... It is almost like making a mix tape of my own stuff."

Elliott described Everything as the band's most upbeat and poppiest work, and it tethers a Pavement-style whimsy and lightness with a country/roots-rock anchor. M. Ward is typically invoked by critics when describing the band.

These United States' debut was assembled with lots of collaborators and Paleo's David Strackany, and its second album was its first as a band and recorded mostly live in less than a week. This is "more of our studio piece," Elliott said. "We spent a little more time on it in the studio, and there's a lot more of it. It's a lot thicker and richer and whatever production-wise. And there's 800 guitar tracks on it instead of simply 12. It's bigger. It's a little more exuberant."

The shift to a solid band had the benefit of focusing These United States, but Elliott said that it had a cost. "Eventually, we were like, 'We want to start honing our craft a little more, narrowing it down rather than broadening it out ... ," he said. "We can get to ideas faster and maybe more thoroughly at the same time, even if there's not quite as much crazy, creative chaos going on."

Download Embed Embed this video on your site "The Business," from These United States' debut, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden

Download Embed Embed this video on your site "First Sight," from A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden

Download Embed Embed this video on your site "West Won," from the band's second album, Crimes

While the writing process hasn't changed, Elliott said, he's approaching songs differently. With a background as a journalist, ghostwriter, and speechwriter, Elliott's expertise is more words than music. But "I'm certainly writing them [the songs] for a band, with a band in mind, with more space to let other people's sounds and ideas flourish, and not pack everything quite so full of lyrics ... ."

Elliott was a game and good-humored interview subject, joking about his band's three full-length albums in 18 months ("We're shooting for once every two and a half weeks. We haven't distilled the process quite that far yet.") and fantasizing about rock-star excess ("Someday we hope to run up $2-million tabs [in the studio] over the course of two and a half years making totally ostentatious rock operas and whatnot.")

That's in keeping with the band's playful nature. These United States has generally been open to unusual experiences. Elliott was featured in The New Gay's "Ask a Straight Guy" feature, and the band busked in New York's Washington Square Park. The prize package for the ensemble's name-the-van contest included the first nonessential part to fall off the vehicle and a souvenir from Walcott, Iowa's "World's Largest Truckstop." (Although based in Washington, D.C., Elliott grew up in Elgin, Illinois, and attended the University of Iowa.)

"What's the alternative -- to not do it?" he said of the band's adventures. "That makes me kind of nervous ... . We'll do pretty much anything anybody asks of us, as long as it's not too illegal or too immoral."

These United States will perform on Monday, August 17, at Huckleberry's (223 18th Street in Rock Island). The bill also features TV Torso and The Daredevil Christopher Wright. The show starts at 7 p.m., and admission is $5.

For more information on the band, visit The group's two Daytrotter sessions can be found here and here.

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