Wired for Sound

TWO MONTHS AGO, to celebrate my birthday, my boyfriend and I adopted an 18-month-old rottweiler-German shepherd mix from Seattle Animal Control. Like many dogs in a new home, Fred experienced severe separation anxiety when left unattended. Consequently, my beau and I couldn't leave him alone for more than a few minutes without him chewing to bits whatever he could find. One night, we returned from dinner out, and it looked like a blizzard had hit the living roomFred had masticated an entire White Pages directory.

But Fred's favorite target was headphones. Perhaps my pup resented that listening to music divided my attentions. Or maybe my earwax is especially flavorful. Regardless, within days of joining our family, Fred had chomped his way through several of the smaller, Walkman-friendly varieties. What shreds remained to be picked out of the carpet resembled what I imagined the remnants of a face-off between Godzilla and Mister Salty might look like. The worst was the day I walked in and discovered Fred had triedwith only partial successto devour my Sony professional, studio-quality pair of headphones. Good thing my husband-to-be knows a thing or two about electrical wiring and hot-glue guns.

Exhibit A: Everyone Down Here (Palm Pictures), the third full-length from Los Angeles' Earlimart. Everyone grows exponentially more enveloping when listened to sans distractions. Which is not to suggest that when I popped it on I reverted to that lonely adolescent who squandered sunny afternoons in private absorbing David Bowie's Low and Pink Floyd's The Wall. Instead, the precision with which songwriter- producer Aaron Espinoza crafts the weird, ambient FX that underpin his indie-rock compositionsthe almost inaudible humming that bookends the hypnotic opener, "We're So Happy We Left the Piano on the Back of the Truck," or the warped tape warbling beneath the "Space Oddity"-like piano chords of "The Movies"happily brought to mind the sunny, rustling sonic microcosms of Sparklehorse's 2001 album, It's a Wonderful Life.

"That's my favorite part [of recording], peppering in fucked-up things," admits Espinoza, 38, who made the 32-minute Everyone with bassist-keyboard player Ariana Murray and drummer Davey Latter. "Sometimes I start with just that, sitting on the floor, plugging in different pedals, and seeing what noises I can get." Espinoza rarely works with outside producers, although Grandaddy's Jason Lytle lent a hand on two Everyone tracks, including the first single, "We Drink on the Job." "I'd hate to put anyone else through that," Espinoza says, "because I can spend hours and hours with just some sort of loop going through the speakers until I find exactly the right one."

Unlike Earlimart's first two albums, Filthy Doorways and Kingdom of Champions, Everyone Down Here is generally more contemplative (with the sing-along "Burning the Cow" and the distortion-fueled "Lost at Sea" serving as rule-making exceptions). Which meant Espinoza felt compelled to spend even more time fashioning the background textureseven "Lazy Feet 23," which starts off with just voice and guitar, features a radio whining quietly in the backgroundlest he be perceived as straying into simple troubadour territory. Although Espinoza's tranquil singing style is reminiscent of Elliott Smith, he isn't a big fan of his own voice in playback. "I have to have smoke screens, little decoys to divert the ear," he explains.

Growing up in Sacramento, Espinoza spent plenty of time with headphones strapped on his noggin. "The big, huge kind, with the curly cord coming out," he recalls. "I'd be listening to my mom's records: Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Sgt. Pepper's." But soon he figured out that the line out on the stereo amplifier made a fine makeshift line in, too. "I'd gotten this crappy little electric guitar, from Toys R Us, and you could plug that into the headphone jack and play through the stereo speakers. That was how I learned about feedback. I would turn it up as loud as it would go and distort the speakers."

Naturally, it wasn't long before Espinoza's mother came home and found that 10-year-old Aaron's experiments had fried her stereo. "I remember getting whupped pretty good for that," he says. Hey, she could have resorted to much sterner disciplinary measures. Just ask Fred, who gets to while away his unattended hours in a wire crate (what we affectionately call the playhouse) nowadays. After all, when an album as sublime as Everyone Down Here lands in my lap, I need at least one pair of working headphones handy.

Earlimart play Graceland at 9 p.m. Sun., July 20, with Creeper Lagoon and Milwaukee. $8 adv.

Kurt B. Reighley is going on sabbatical; this will be the final Two Ears and a Tale column.


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