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Jesse Elliott has a lot going on inside his head, but whatever: I just want to hear him to sing about girls. Although the frontman of These United States has never been afraid to reveal his romantic inclinations, he hasn’t written a relationship song quite as absorbing as “Miss Underground,” an unexpected treat about halfway through These United States, the band’s fifth album and first since its last D.C.-based member, guitarist J. Tom Hnatow, left town.
A little bit loopy and a little bit louche, “Miss Underground” is ostensibly about the moment when a guy realizes he’s not totally repelled by the crazy side of his lover. “I’m leavin’ out your window baby/Please don’t you scream and shout,” Elliott croaks while an echoey groove and bluesy guitars suggest that our hero isn’t innocent, either. (I picture him as being shirtless, bearded, and high; she’s tattooed and in a tank top, throwing things.) Guest vocalists Laura Mae Socks and Lavinia Jones Wright back Elliott up by coyly and dryly repeating “underground, Miss Underground,” as if it’s pointless to assign full culpability to either side.
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Just in case that’s too sexy, the next song, “Maps,” is less physical—but almost nearly as attractive—in its approach to interpersonal dynamics. Is it a convoluted love song? Or an abstraction of the thoughts that transpire when a guy has been trapped in a van with a bunch of bandmates for days on end? Could be both, but sonically, it’s undoubtedly a road-rocker of some sort. “My heart is gonna attack,” Elliott sings as all manner of guitars surge and ring and swoosh around him. It’s some of the most rewardingly loose playing you’ll hear from These United States.
What happens when Elliott gets home? “It’s gonna be so sweet to be back, I’m gonna give you all the rest of my love/I’m gonna put on my Abraham Lincoln cap, lay you down in the bathtub,” he says at the beginning of “So Sweet to Be Back,” a soft boogie that eventually turns a bit unruly and mildly psychedelic. The other love-oriented songs aren’t as juicy. “Let the River In,” with its tight-sounding, ’70s-style production, is partly about being unattainable; “Not Gone Tonight,” which is equal parts Spacehog and Anodyne-era Uncle Tupelo, is mostly for show; “Born Young” combines the bounce of Lindsey Buckingham’s “Holiday Road” with believable lyrics that might be about a still-in-love old couple.
The rest of the album is stuffed with highway characters and evocative vignettes: “Dead & Gone” has swampy stomp and multisyllabic proper nouns (Tchoupitoulas, Susquehanna, etc.); “Two Gods,” with backing vocals by Mynabirds’ Laura Burhenn and Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck, is one part spiritual babble, one part Jenny Lewis-style SoCal country; and “Vince” is a mini-epic about some Zen dude in the desert who gives vague driving directions to a place of enlightenment. Elliott plays up the story-song cornpone as the band envelops him in big-sky sounds.
Whatever the inspiration might be on any given song, These United States is thoroughly on top of its musical business, even though the album was recorded in a variety of locales and the band still has no specific address. (Elliott left D.C. a while ago for Brooklyn, Hnatow is now in North Carolina, and other members have generally called Lexington, Ky., home.) Its last two records—2009’s Everything Touches Everything and 2010’s What Lasts—weren’t nearly this much fun. Elliott has found some fresh inspiration, and if a few metaphorical dishes got broken, so be it. He should keep going back to that place.