El May is the performance moniker of Los Angeles-based Lara Meyerratken, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who has worked with artists as diverse as Ben Lee, Luscious Jackson and Luna. There is a vaguely retro feel to this, her first solo outing, with echoes of the kind of “classic” songwriters she quotes as influences on her Myspace – Tom Petty, George Harrison and particularly fellow Californians The Go-Go’s – lending an indefinable familiarity to her sound, the kind of easy lightness found in a lot of West Coast soft rock of the 1970s.
Opener ‘Fire/Freezer’ pulls the listener in with an a cappella intro followed by a mantra of lyrics that mesmerise with repetition and layers of harmony. The album never quite manages to ensnare the imagination to this degree again, but Meyerratken occasionally comes close. With its images of escape to the coasts of the Pacific Northwest, the Khaela Maricich-featuring ‘Don’t You’ is effective in its simplicity, and there are effective glimpses of aquatic metaphors in the hippyish ‘Made Of Water’.
The piano-driven ‘Draining A Lake’ offers more boat imagery but a change of pace, with a riff recalling Ben Folds or Spoon, and a soft yet Spector-ish back beat. Meyerratken’s warm, rich vocal and the hypnotic refrain “Wouldn’t I know by now”, together with the subtle brass of the outro, delivers this track from the curse of overfamiliarity and makes it stand out among a set that can end up being overly polite and, at times, like pleasant but unremarkable aural scenery.
‘I Remember’ uses strings and layers of harmony that recall the kind of Elliott Smith songs favoured by compilers of movie soundtracks, but sometimes the lyrics can end up sounding a little prosaic, as on the almost supplicatory ‘Order In The Nothingness’. Efforts to lift the songs out of the ordinary work to some extent – for instance, the country-teasing lap steel sound on ‘The Things You Lost’ – but sometimes only serve to make them rather irksome, as with the sleigh bells and the bright chords that echo them on ‘Want For Wonder’.
Summing El May up to a tee, ‘Hold Yourself’ is perfect for that highly recognisable end-of-episode moment of certain US TV dramas that call for a meaningful ballad to illustrate the emotional development of characters as they take on board the lessons of the week in tasteful slow-mo. Indeed, the track has recently been used on the reactivated rich-teens-in-turmoil soap ‘Melrose Place’, and it’s not hard to picture them neatly dealing with their “issues” with this suitably gentle, bathetic backing track.
[Self-released; January 18, 2010]