pick-of-the-monthThe Jeff Green Project - Elder Creek album cover, as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothElder Creek is a great example of new-wave or crossover prog, and tells a story of memory.  A unique mix of symphonic prog, psychedelic rock, folk ballad, and classical mythology, this is an uplifting album with the power to entertain, encourage, and invigorate.

Elder Creek
Artist: The Jeff Green Project
Label: F2 Records (Festival Music)
Time: 7 tracks / 59:00 minutes

A California native transplanted to southern Ireland, Jeff Green is a man who wears a number of hats – not the least of which is baseball fan, school teacher, and prog musician.  This unique blend of interests is perhaps indicative of the type of music Jeff writes and produces under the moniker, “The Jeff Green Project.”  Elder Creek, his sophomore release, is a unique mix of symphonic prog, psychedelic rock, folk ballad, and classical mythology.  The followup to 2009’s Jessica – Jeff’s self-produced album dedicated to the memory of his stillborn daughter – Elder Creek is the collaborative effort of a number of musicians: Mike Stobbie and Alan Reed, formerly of Pallas (keyboards and vocals, respectively); Pete Riley, who has performed with Guthrie Govan and Keith Emerson (drums); Andy Staples (bass); Garreth Hicklin and Imogen Hendricks (vocals); Phil Hilborne (guitar); and Sean Filkins, formerly the lead singer of Big Big Train.

Elder Creek is a strong concept album, if a little difficult to untangle (a Gordian knot, if you will).  It certainly raises questions about memories and how they define who we are, but its root of inspiration goes much deeper.  In the sense of an overarching plot, the album is framed as a back-and-forth conversation, carried on over great distance and between the voices of a grandson and a grandmother, each trying to reach the other.  A half-remembered body of water across the vast sea, the Elder Creek contains a sense of mystical wonder, a place once known but long forgotten.  There is also a continuous sense of time’s fluidity in conjunction to the singer’s memories, as a “river… flowing backwards to a time before we met.”  The water itself symbolizes a number of things – youth, rebirth, oneness – but like the Garden of Eden, it ultimately represents the place of origin, perfection, and continual happiness: the afterlife, or heaven.  What would be unclear outside of a conversation with Jeff would be the very personal nature of this story.  On one hand, Elder Creek is a loose retelling of various Greek myths: names such as Theseus, Mnemosyne, and Euturpe jump out to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of classical mythology.  On the other hand, the album is also a representation of Jeff’s very real, very personal story.  His grandmother, lost to a battle with Alzheimer’s, and his stillborn daughter, Jessica, both find representation in the respective personas of Mnemosyne – goddess of memory – and Euturpe – muse of music.  The main body of story is there, even in the characterization: three generations, separated by death as though by a massive body of water, each yearning to reconnect.  Elder Creek is its own myth: the journey of the deceased into the afterlife, and the desire of the one left behind to follow, to recover the souls of those dear departed, and his attempt to honor them through music and through memory.

The album’s 8:00+ minute opening track, “Theseus Falls,” fades in with the gentle sounds of flowing waters, intermixed with swells of synth and strings that linger hauntingly, like mist above a waterfall, until acoustic guitar harmonics and swirling synth pads announce the central riff.  Broken into three sections, “Theseus” begins with “Entrance,” moving in a laid-back 7/8.  The cyclical, harmonic guitar passage is overlaid with a brief synth lead and interspersed with guitar licks that expand upon the central melody.  At the 3:45-minute mark, part two (“Questions”) begins, transitioning via a hard stop and gentle chimes into a steady 4/4, helmed by the acoustic guitar.  Jeff’s gentle vocal finally enters, a lilting and well-enunciated lyrical delivery that channels the timbres of both Peter Gabriel and Derek Shulman.  “Shallows wait while shadows grow, but reflections always last,” Jeff postulates as the grandson, developing early the themes of life’s temporality as well as lingering connection to the deceased.  After a pair of verses, choruses, and a momentary reprise of the opening theme, the track transitions into its third and final movement.  “Exit” is a brief, pastoral outro, performed by a pair of acoustic guitars playing in harmonic unison.  The gentle sounds of the waterfall return and the song concludes.  “Theseus Falls” makes the album’s first of many references to the Lethe, one of the five rivers in Greek mythology that flowed into Hades.  This and other allusions the afterlife on Elder Creek are somewhat elusive, because there is no direct mention of death.  The personas Jeff adopts to tell the story view the gap that has arisen between them as a distortion of time that has stranded them on opposite sides of an ocean, with only one place to rendezvous: the Elder Creek.

The main body of the album’s title track is a bluesy, funky groove.  It fades in on the heels of the “Theseus Falls” outro, an ethereal blend of distorted voices (“As I stood upon the stair / I saw a girl who wasn’t there / She wasn’t there again today / I wish, I wish she’d go away”) cutting through the sounds of needle on vinyl and a whimsical, circus-esque melody coming from a distant radio.  Sean Filikins, one-time singer of Big Big Train (Gathering Speed, The Difference Machine) provides the powerful lead vocals for this track.  “Find your way across the sea / and sail on home to Elder Creek,” he sings, terming this mysterious place the “home” setting – the place to which they must journey in order to be united again.  Bass and drums groove together in tight unison on the verses, while electronically manipulated guitar sounds pan rapidly back and forth.  The choruses are full of vocal harmony: Jeff’s backing vocals overlapping Sean’s lead, then stacked together above the continuous funk beat.  One of the more straightforward songs on the album, “Elder Creek” doesn’t have any guitar solos or unusual breakdowns, though it does feature some furious unison licks shared across all stringed instruments.  Singable, melodic, and supremely memorable, “Elder Creek” is the track that will be stuck in your head after the album’s conclusion.

12-string acoustic guitar, organ, and synth entrance “Our First Meeting.”  Like “Elder Creek,” the structure of this song is fairly straightforward – a pair of verses and choruses, then an elongated instrumental bridge before a final chorus – though its length (just under 8:00 minutes) and content are both deviant from typical pop norms.  Composed entirely in laid back 4/4, “Our First Meeting” features strong bass movement and prevalent acoustic guitar on the verses, while string pads and growling electric guitar give each chorus a powerful, orchestral feel.  Beginning at the 3:00-minute mark, Mike Stobble on the synth and Jeff on the guitar – panned left and right, respectively – begin their give-and-take of solos.  This section is the instrumental heart of the track.  After a reprise of the chorus, a pair of overdubbed guitars comprise the long, harmonic outro.  “Our First Meeting” particularly tells the story of Jeff’s grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, detailing in particular the pain that he underwent, watching her condition deteriorate along with her knowledge of who he was: “I know I'm your son, but I feel like I’m your father / Of course I still care, but why oh why do I bother? / I call you by name and you smile at me with a greeting / And I see in your eyes our first meeting.”

“Point Blunt Light” is the album’s only completely instrumental track.  It begins reflectively with trilling piano and softly plucked acoustic guitar in 4/4, accompanied by melancholic electric guitar lead.  The main theme ascends dynamically, just prior to the entrance of a second guitar and the incorporation of the rest of the band.  Stobble’s synth work, particularly reminiscent of Neal Morse’s (Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard), cues the second half of this guitar passage: more harmonic runs before unison hits, a full breakdown with a harmonized guitar lick, and then bells which accent the acoustic guitar transitioning to a 3/4 cant.  A warbling organ supports the ascending chord progression, over which Jeff lays a brief lead on the mandolin, and then overdubbed electric guitars accompany the synth.  The mandolin outro is accompanied by the acoustic guitar harmonics which found a significant presence on “Theseus Falls” – a strong musical tie between these two compositions that I didn’t notice during my first listen.  After the echoing guitar chords from the previous track fade, “Gordian’s Knot” kicks immediately into a guitar romp in 5/4, interspersed with short, 2-measure refrains in 3/4.  Phil Hilborne takes his first guest solo on the album at the 2:00-minute mark, an aggressive, wah-drenched pentatonic ride that builds out of a harmonic overdubbed passage, and concludes in the same fashion.  Trilling piano introduces the gentle bridge in 6/8 – a time change that will carry the song to its conclusion.  Imogen Hendricks’ heart-felt backing vocals, together with Stobble’s organ patches, give the latter half of “Gordian’s Knot” a choral, almost gospel feel: a choir set against the fiery darts of the Evil One.  Lyrically, the song recalls Lewis Carol’s “Jabberwocky,” terming the demons of the mind the beast that will never be tamed.  The title too, the “Gordian’s Knot,” is representative of an impossible problem – an enemy that can never be overcome.  The soaring, triumphant outro is bolstered by the final lyric: “The Jabberwock lives but I’m gone and free / Keep me alive by remembering me” – a plea infused with the hope of reunion.

The shortest track on the album, “Loops and Threads” begins with more vinyl hiss, radio loops, the now-familiar acoustic guitar harmonics, and disconcerted voices that gradually give way to plucked acoustic guitar and piano.  Flute and other synth patches join the gentle composition, and Jeff’s whimsical singing channels the nostalgia that his lyrics embody, lingering on the sentiment that the dreamy instrumentation has established.  Electric guitars, in harmonic unison, explode suddenly from the misty composition, buoyed by swirling synth.  “One day we’ll find, through the ravages of time, a place to be,” the speaker imagines at the songs’s conclusion, longing for the Elder Creek – the place where he and his loved ones will one day be reunited.

Clocking in at just over 20:00 minutes, Elder Creek’s final track is the composite of seven movements.  “A Long Time From Now’s” ethereal intro, “Building the Ship,” is reminiscent of the album’s opening track, “Theseus Falls,” beginning with the sounds of running water, calling birds, and a synth melody that borrows from “Loops and Threads.”  The driving guitar riff bursts into steady 4/4 motion for part two, “Out to Sea,” accompanied by bass, drums, and organ patches on the keys.  The refrain of part one exists in layers of vocal harmony as the speaker recounts the outset of the vessel’s journey, carrying “precious cargo – my memories,” away to an unknown destination.  Just before the 6:00-minute mark, part three, “The Mirror Man,” begins.  Stopple lays down a fantastic organ groove that Staples on the bass adopts, which quickly evolves into a funky, half-time passage, rife with traded guitar leads and centered on the Greek persona of Mnemosyne, the embodiment of memory.  Jeff is joined by vocalist Alan Reed, formerly of the band Pallas, for this section of the epic.  The next movement, “Two for Tea,” is a darker and more ethereal segment, with acoustic guitars and string patches – the continued plea of the grandmother to be remembered beyond the sea.  Without preamble, the double-tracked electric guitars return for the all-instrumental part five, “Along the Lethe.”  Featuring a brief return to the main riff, this movement becomes a rapid synth- and organ-led segment, undergirded by restless bass and tight drums.  Phil Hilborne’s second guest solo, much longer than his initial offering on “Gordian’s Knot,” rises majestically out of the rigorous organ lead.  Gradually, the percussion pulls back to half-time beneath the panning synth, breaking for what sounds like howling wind and distant church bells (or just an iPhone ringtone).  Distorted voices desperately plead for light, mocked by fleeing seagulls and the sounds of a harbor.  Chimes and organ prelude this next movement, “Arrival.”  Acoustic guitar and piano take center stage, resuming the initial refrain that began the epic, this time bolstered by huge strings and guitars.  This final chorus possesses all the symphonic resonance of a Flower Kings epic.  Staples’ bass gallops beneath the celebratory acoustic guitar and loose keys work.  The final movement, the instrumental “Euturpe,” features Jeff’s final guitar solo on the album, as well as a triumphant outro.  The lingering guitars fade into the gentle babble of running water: the final return to the Elder Creek, and the reunion of grandmother and great-grandchild – Jessica, or Euturpe: the one who went on before.  The only one left to make the journey, then, is the one in the middle – Jeff himself, the grandson, stuck in the land of the living, yearning to be with his grandmother and daughter, but left behind with the precious responsibility of keeping their memories alive.

Elder Creek is a great example of new-wave or crossover prog – the type that remains faithful to the grand visions of the classic prog acts while infusing compositions with the melody and singability that make contemporary popular music so palatable.  Jeff’s music combines blues and funk with rock and psychedelia, as well as incorporating folk and classical-style piano into his symphonic compositions.  Elder Creek tells the universal story of memory.  It is a myth of pain, loss, and hope that bears the intimate sincerity of reality.  They say the greatest inspiration of human creativity is the pain of loss, and Jeff’s personal experiences have certainly gifted him with an ardent purpose for writing music.  For that reason, Elder Creek is an uplifting album with the power to entertain, encourage, and invigorate.

Justin Carlton


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