The California that Earlimart's music evokes isn't the one with movie stars and palm trees. Frontman Aaron Espinoza may live in seemingly glamorous Los Angeles, but his tunes' lethargic despondency captures the quiet malaise of suburban sprawl and the wide-open, empty isolation of the state's less-populated desert regions, where the sun beats down and the distant mountains stretch out into nothingness. But you don't need to appreciate those geographic associations to sink into Mentor Tormentor's soft bed of atmospheric melancholy. You just need to be seriously bummed out.
Shedding band members and switching labels, Espinoza and his partner Ariana Murray don't radically change Earlimart's lyrical and sonic strategy for its fifth record. The blueprint remains a woozy blend of acoustic pop and electronic studio enhancements still deeply influenced by their friends in the now-defunct Grandaddy. And even with Murray contributing to the songwriting and occasionally taking over lead vocals, the thematic content rarely strays from Espinoza's pet obsessions: love's inevitable decay and the futility of human interaction. This should be dreary, whiny stuff and when the tunes don't come together, they can sound like the inside of the world's deepest navel but the lush sweep of Mentor Tormentor's best moments suggest a gorgeous alternate reality handmade by Espinoza and Murray as a means to ward off the encroaching pessimism around them. Particularly on heartbroken tracks like "Happy Alone" and "Don't Think About Me," the album's loneliness feels almost stirring, offering hope to those still looking for their Hollywood happy ending.
Tim Grierson writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.