"This is a factory," says Jesse Elliott, referring to his band, These United States. "This is a hits machine, Motown all the way."
He's kidding, of course. But the upcoming release of the Washington, DC-based band's second album, Crimes, is hot on the heels of its debut, A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden, which only came out in March of this year. While Elliott's ragtag compositions don't sound remotely like anything off the Motown production line, they uphold the tradition of music for music's sake, evoking an era before music videos or iTunes playlists.
Elliott's been likened to Johnny Appleseed, and in many ways he is more traveling troubadour than rock star. His band—name and all—epitomizes the American experience, much like the writings of Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, and Hunter S. Thompson. If Sufjan Stevens hadn't already run with the idea, These United States would be the perfect candidate to do a series of albums on all 50 states.
"Everybody preserves things they don't even know they're preserving," says Elliott of America's heritage of storytelling. "It's in our blood and genes, these little human codes we carry down across years. Music's the same. We can't escape that biological, cultural certainty any more than anyone else can, musician or not. I still love America, actually—traveling always renews my faith in it. The States are everything to us; they break our heart and rebuild it, just about every night we're way out across them, really."
Crimes eschews the pensive, synth-tinged bedroom pop of the first record for rootsy folk-rock barnburners, wherein pedal steel guitar lopes atop Dylanesque word rambles. "Honor Amongst Thieves" is a carefree, contagious stomp, and "West Won" is chilly, desert-at-night noir. Songs take left turns and lazily amble; melodies are squandered then redeemed; and the blues are made happy.
The vagabond lifestyle of a touring musician suits Elliott perfectly. "It really is the life," he says. "There are so many perfect people in this world, hidden in plain sight. We get to find a few every night—a lucky, lucky life."