"I felt myself falling/under a spell/I knew very well I might never return/to the land of the living/and then I was giving myself to the light/then I took flight/I shot up like a kite/it was my last night on earth…"
The seventh album by storied New York duo Elysian Fields, entitled Last Night On Earth, was recorded by the band themselves in a cold water flat in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the winter of 2011.
A cast of long-standing allies rotated in and out for the sessions, including pianist/composer Ed Pastorini, Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley), John Medeski, Jim Thirlwell, The Antibalas horns, and string players from Bon Iver and Antony and The Johnsons.
Collaboration with some of New York's finest musicians has been a mainstay of Elysian Fields during their 16 years of making music, but these sessions were different. With a career that has been focused almost entirely in Europe since the duo's split from the major label deal that first brought them notoriety, Last Night On Earth will be the first record Elysian Fields has released Stateside in a decade.
And so it was during the frosty January of 2011, that Jennifer Charles, wrapped in coat, scarves and hat, recorded vocals for Last Night on Earth into a Neuman U87 microphone, huddled by an electric heater while Oren Bloedow cranked up his guitar through a 1970 Marshall stack, rattling the thick snow off the windowsills with the volume of the rough-edged guitar tones that define the sound of this new record.
Elysian Fields is a band that has always moved (sensuously) to their own drummer. As befits this much-respected partnership born in New York's thriving Downtown community, EF has always leaned heavily on jazz and the avant garde. But this new record digs a little deeper into their musical history, going back to a time when they first fell in love with the radio as kids.
Elements of their languorous romantic ballads, heavily flavored with jazz and dissonance, are still present, only this record taps into the rock roots that feed all of EF's emotionally driven, powerful songs. From the Bowie-esque, dub and sci-fi/psychedelia-inflected title track to the Zeppelin-influenced "Sweet Condenser," to the crunchy Beatles and Queen orchestral power pop of "Church of the Holy Family," to the anomalous rhythmic pulse of "Can't Tell My Friends" and the gentle Paul Buckmaster-ish "Old Old Wood," this is a record that sums up decades of FM radio living.
The punky duet "Red Riding Hood," in which the Wolf and Little Red spar over Farfisa Organ chops (ala ? and The Mysterians) and stinging guitar licks, is a lupine seduction song in sheep's clothing. The glam strut of "Villain on the Run" is a T Rex/Lou Reed take on an imaginary Bacharach tune: "There's a Holy Mountain/ there's a Roman fountain/ I'm feeling lucky/ are you feeling lucky?/ There's a roulette wheel/ watch me cop a feel/ I'm feeling lucky/ are you feeling lucky?"
For hardcore Elysian Fields fans there is the gypsy-ish Brecht/Weill-flavored ballad "Johnny," an instant classic that illustrates the band's forte for getting you lost in a song you feel like you've known all your life.
Jennifer Charles cuts to the quick in the opening track "Sleepover," the most modern-sounding song on the record and a song/story from childhood that is both simple and affecting: "Take me back home, home/I really am scared/Take me back home, home/I miss my Mom and my bed."
The voice of longtime collaborator Ed Pastorini can be heard on "Sleepover," and his piano and musical ideas deepen the deep atmospheres of "Chandeliers," the most unabashedly majestic love song Elysian Fields has ever released (that's saying something).
In 16 years, Elysian Fields have never made music that sweeps with such ranging strokes and yet not only retains their identity, but helps continue to define it. These are the influences of years past coming together in Charles' unmistakable and soaring voice, only getting richer and more faceted through time, while Bloedow's brilliant musicianship continues to showcase a uniquely original vision.
Throughout it all are the visually poetic and inspired lyrics coupled with the voluptuous arrangements we have come to expect from Elysian Fields, creating what very well may be the record for which they are remembered most. There are a billion ways to spend your last night on earth. Elysian Fields wants to know: are you feeling lucky?