By Hank Hoffman
What if the Shins were all acoustic and seasoned their irresistible melodies with some bluegrass? They might sound like the New Haven-based band Goodnight Blue Moon. This thought is brought to mind while listening to “Old Man and the Sea,” the second song on How Long, Goodnight Blue Moon’s new (and first) album.
The core of Goodnight Blue Moon — married couple Erik Elligers on acoustic guitar and cellist Nancy Matlack teaming up with mandolin player Mathew Crowley — first performed at Café Nine in New Haven in October 2008. The next year they expanded the band, adding Matt Goff on drums, upright bass player Adam Kubota, and Elligers’ brother Sean on trumpet. For a while, Matlack’s sister Amy commuted from New Jersey to play violin with the group until the distance proved prohibitive.
Goodnight Blue Moon is an “orchestral/acoustic/folk band,” according to its bio. But that description hardly does the group justice, stylistically expansive as it is. The group seems to effortlessly mesh a bevy of diverse musical traditions — folk, rock, bluegrass, Irish music, singer-songwriter confessionalism, and pop. And if on a couple of songs they wear their influences a bit too obviously on their sleeves, for the most part the record showcases a sound fully their own.
That sound is based on an instrumental lineup of acoustic guitar, mandolin, cello, upright bass, trumpet, and percussion (including glockenspiel), augmented on selected songs on the disc with violin, banjo, and a six-piece string orchestra. The vocals — led by either Elligers or Crowley — are often colored with shimmering three-part harmony. In the studio the band was joined by Ben Dean on violin, Rob Katz on banjo, and John Panos on trumpet.
I’m usually an electric rock ‘n’ roll chauvinist. Let me hear an electric guitar run through a fuzz pedal and I’m happy. But even to my volume-besotted ears, there is nothing missing in the all-acoustic strains of How Long.
The opening cut, the traditional folk song “Down in the Valley,” sets the tone. It starts almost a cappella, a mini-choir of harmonized voices. With each successive verse, the simple melody is enriched with layers of instrumentation, including a six-piece string orchestra. Simple materials made glorious.It is the perfect set-up for “Old Man and the Sea,” written by Elligers and Crowley, both of whom take turns singing lead on the song. “Old Man and the Sea” has a propulsive beat, pushing its insinuating melody deep into a listener’s consciousness. The instrumental coloring in the breaks between verses — trumpet keening with violin and cello — is beautiful, somehow the perfect counterpoint to acerbic lyrics that declare “Your integrity is shit so what the hell” and conclude with “And she can be so cruel.”
The music is orchestrated, arranged, but it never feels saccharine or overblown. Quite the contrary. There is an organic naturalness to the instrumental choices, as if the songs are plants that bloom with leaves and color according to some DNA sequence that can’t be denied.
Of course, naturalness isn’t the result of an accident. It is the result of craft and the right blend of talents and musical experiences. What impresses about Goodnight Blue Moon is that this eclectic pop, which in the 1960s would have required the guiding hand of a producer and the big bucks backing of a major label, is a handmade D.I.Y. project. It’s the best of two pop worlds — the determinedly human scale sensibility of the indie scene coupled with the arranging and performing skills of musical professionals.
The core group members bring disparate musical backgrounds to the project. Elligers, who has a degree in studio music and jazz performance from the University of Miami, is well-schooled in jazz — playing sax, clarinet, flute, and piano — and spent many years gigging with the eclectic dance/funk group Pencilgrass. Besides cellist Matlack’s classical training, she also played electric cello with the New Jersey punk group Outsmarting Simon. Crowley and Elligers credit her punk band experience with her skill at editing compositions.
Elligers says, “Nancy is good at making sure we get in and out of a section and don’t overdo it.”
Crowley’s roots are in folk music and bluegrass; he also plays in the Dudley Farm String Band.
“We knew right away when Matt sang and I sang that our voices gelled so we went with it,” says Elligers.
I interviewed Elligers and Crowley over beers at Christopher Martin’s. Both band members have apartments in the building housing the restaurant and bar, which has made rehearsing and writing convenient. Elligers and Matlack, however, will soon be moving to a house they recently bought in Fair Haven.
For Elligers, taking up the guitar in 2007 after Pencilgrass disbanded facilitated breaking out of his compositional routine. Rather than learn the traditional chord fingerings, Elligers created his own grips.
“I didn’t want to know any of the notes I was playing,” Elligers says. “I liked the opportunity to discover new things for myself and not necessarily know the theory behind it. It was more liberating, I guess, whereas if I sit down at a piano, I can see everything and probably get too wrapped up in the harmony. Very often it stops me from writing because I think, ‘This is too cheesy or jazzy or poppy.’”
All members of the group contribute to the arrangements, but Elligers has primary responsibility for scoring the string and horn arrangements that add such sweeping tonal color between the lyrics.“If you are writing for two people,” Elligers says, referring to his wife Nancy on cello and his brother Sean on trumpet, “you have to come up with some general idea of how it’s going to sound. Is it going to be in harmony or unison?”
Where Crowley has been used to a fair measure of improvisation in his string band playing, Goodnight Blue Moon’s music tends to be more tightly composed.
“A lot of this is, ‘You play this here, you don’t play this here.’ And that’s good, it’s what I like about it,” says Crowley.
Structurally, Crowley notes, Goodnight Blue Moon chafes against the traditional verse/bridge/chorus, verse/bridge/chorus formula.
“We try experimenting more with changing things up, turning a tune on its ear,” Crowley says.
“Instead of having a formula, each song is different,” adds Elligers. “Let it take you. If you want to go to the next section for eight measures and stay in a different key for a couple of seconds and you have some melodies that start writing themselves, just keep going with it.”
Crowley is the storyteller in the band. His “Amadaun Johnny” is a jaunty Irish-situated and inflected parable about the risks of over-compensation. Elligers’ lyrics are more impressionistic, conjuring emotion and place more than narrative. But his evocation of feeling is strong. There is a heartbreaking sense of loss in the album closer “Keep On,” yet it’s a loss that’s leavened by the concluding verse’s couplet, “You have planted seeds so they can grow/Step back and watch them as their colors start to show.”
In the Elligers-penned “New England,” the lyrical specifics marry lived experience to a powerful sense of place: “Do you remember when we used to meet/At Livingston and Willow Street?/ We’d pedal over fallen leaves/And petals from magnolia trees/ The stars were ringing in the sky/We drank it all in with our eyes/And I can’t wait to welcome in/A brand new breath of life with every spring.”
While there are distinct Elligers songs and Crowley songs on the record, the two songwriters are forging a fruitful collaboration, bouncing ideas off of each other. Deciding that Crowley’s “I Caught Mama (Kissing a Yankee)” was missing a certain something, they grafted on a bridge written by Elligers that enriched the song musically and complicated it — in a good way — lyrically.
“I can’t tell a story to save my life,” says Elligers. “Crowley does that so well. What I think we do really well together is that I’ll figure out where he’s coming from and if he’s struggling for something, I’ll help push him. And if I’m struggling for something, he’ll help give me words that kind of complete my thoughts.”
Goodnight Blue Moon has played in New York City and Vermont as well as Connecticut, mostly on rock rather than folk bills. With How Long in-hand, the band now has to “push ourselves in a whole new direction, become more businessmen,” says Elligers.
Marketing the group is complicated somewhat by their eclecticism. As Elligers acknowledges, their shows have demonstrated that “we appeal to a wide spectrum of people, but I don’t know if there is one niche that’s going to push us.”
“We’re not necessarily college music, not necessarily kids’ music, certainly not punk rock or straight-up indie music,” says Elligers. The best fit, he says, is among such nascent acoustic Americana bands as the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons.
“We’ve worked hard to get to this point where we have a product we feel really good about,” says Elligers. “Now we feel comfortable sending it to radio stations and record stores and seeing what happens.”