Review: Glenn Echo – “Ellenville Sessions”

After a dozen or so listens, “Moon Seems Lost”, a romantic and sometimes-unassuming ballad, started ascending as the finest tune off Glenn Echo’s 2021 full-length debut, Fixed Memory. But, any string of chords on the right guitar and half-whispered lyrics sung with an iota of gravitas can sound good with the right studio production, the fella said, right? So, Matt Gaydar, the acoustic singer-songwriter from New York’s Hudson Valley who lurks behind the Glenn Echo project moniker, strips everything bare and goosebump-naked on Ellenville Sessions, a new mini-LP self-released 28 January on streaming platforms and Bandcamp. The result?

“Love, with a voice soft as springtime / Your eyes round like moon coins / You pull me like the tide,” Gaydar croons over a rhythmic pulse of his careful, signature fingerpicked guitar. “Close, close enough to hear heartbeats / Skipping stones through your breathing / Warm against my cheek.” Then comes the moment – the shift, the way gravity seems to sway, and everything comes into crystal-clear orientation – when the right musician lurches from verse to chorus. With shortened, crisp lines, the chorus punches you square in the gut. “Then we dance like stars in the night / And let our limbs entwine,” he moans, the fingerpicking accelerating. “Soon we left our bodies behind / They hardened with sunshine.”

Even stripped bare, Gaydar’s songs can be emotive and gratifying and gravity-defying and devastating, which is a true measure of someone’s craft in this age of crafty studio gimmicks. On Ellenville Sessions, even more than last year’s subtly crafted Fixed Memory, Gaydar summons the ghosts of romances past and proves he’s the sight-seer you want at your next séance. Or, you know, the guy playing songs on your Airpods, whichever you prefer comes first. It’s an unexpected achievement for a between-LPs affair.

Six of the eight songs on Ellenville are sparse renditions of existing Gaydar tunes. Only the two bonus tracks available when you buy the whole record on Bandcamp – “Black Crow” and the heart-wrenching “Lullaby” – are previously unheard, for those who haven’t caught a Glenn Echo set in the flesh in the American Northeast. “Rising Wide-Eyed” again does the heavy lifting of opening the proceedings, as it did on Fixed Memory, but this version is decidedly sleepier as Gaydar’s guitar slowly unfurls notes, even occasionally slows or smudges its pace, as Gaydar motes out a particular note or refrain. (On Ellenville, the song also is paired, medley-style, with a plucky take on “How Much Blood”, another Gaydar staple.)

“I know I ain’t worth all that much,” Gaydar sings, almost an aside only for us to hear, his voice stretching to punctuate each syllable on “How Much Blood”. That and moments when Gaydar goes lyric-less, and simply wails or moans can feel transcendent as if the musician is so caught up in the air of an eavesdropping session that the scripts and poetry go out the window.

Yes, there are moments that fail to summon spirits or stun, sure, sure. “Suddenly, I’m seeing circles/ making my head spin ’round,” Gaydar croons, leaping into an upper register, a well-performed soft falsetto, on the appropriately titled “Circles”. But that song – the closing tune on the eight-song mini-LP, no less – barely breaks the one-minute mark. And, while it worked as a sort of half-sketch on Fixed Memory, here it registers as little beyond an afterthought, which is a shame for something so beautiful even if slight. The same could be said for the previously unreleased “Black Crow”, which shows amazing potential but doesn’t appear to be performed in its final, fully realized state.

All in all, Gaydar does an alarmingly good job at priming the pump for his second full-length LP, which, rumor has it, is set for release later in 2022. This bearded, sometimes doe-eyed New Yorker has become adept at self-releasing a steady stream of material since starting the Glenn Echo project back in 2015 – an EP tribute in this corner, the Narrative mini-LP or protest song here, a Radiohead cover song or Sleep Study collaboration over there. But Ellenville feels different.

Though it is little more than an artist’s attempt to reconnect to their material – Gaydar, in liner notes, said he was listening to so many mixes of Fixed Memory tracks at the time of the cabin session that the songs were both memorized and unfamiliar to him. It’s an intriguing exercise in memory-making and memory production in the age of COVID-19. And, if the listener comes away with nothing more than an appreciation for the skeletons of Gaydar’s songs when presented simply, so be it – that, in and of itself, makes checking out Glenn Echo worth the time and trouble. — Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, Feb. 4, 2022


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.