“Love Is Proximity” (Sweet Goodness) is the latest release by Essex Chanel (pronounced Cha-NELL), the most recent project for Chicago multi-hyphenate Travis Lee Wiggins, formerly of bands such as The Salts, Dolphins Swimming and The Personal FX, and whose non-musical activities range from conceptual art to his newly-formed Sweet Goodness record label and management company.
Like his fellow Midwestern indie-folk auteur Sufjan Stevens, Wiggins writes and plays numerous instruments on Essex Chanel’s prodigious recorded output (this is the project’s eighth album since 2005); he also arranges and produces it. In January 2007, Essex Chanel recorded a new song for every day of the month and posted the songs daily on its website (again, echoing Stevens’ much-mooted but never-realized 50 States project). Even their voices sound similar, although “Love Is Proximity”‘s sound is altogether rootsier, with harmonica, fiddle and banjo all playing a significant role.
What the album lacks, however, is a real standout moment. Opening track “Skinny Dippin” is almost unbearably weak; far superior is the next track, the string-led duet “See The Light” , whose trance-like waltz brings to mind Son Ambulance’s “Horizons”. Songs such as “Speaking With Eyes” and “I Know You Didn’t Think About” take a more conventional indie-rock route, with Wiggins’ vocals almost venturing into Ben Gibbard territory.
Lyrically, “Love Is Proximity” verges on being overly simplistic, with “Already In Heaven” a typical example: “I’ll get very naked when I get under the covers” I hope it rains a bunch “cause I sleep better when it’s raining’. Occasionally, this works in Wiggins’ favor, as on “Our Last Time As One” , a breakup speech as awkwardly direct as a 15-year-old’s, and all the more heartbreaking for it. But mostly it grates – even the lovely “Nothing To Lose” , with its boy-girl harmonies and sunny 1970s cruise-ship organs, is let down by a lack of lyrical depth and the nagging sense that it could have been great had Wiggins been as generous with his words as he was with the album’s lush instrumental arrangements.
The best track, “For Granted” , is a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking one’s love for granted, with wavering vocals set to delicate acoustic finger-picking and a chorus which, for once, fills the available space with words to gorgeous effect. The crystal-clear female backing vocals (vaguely reminiscent of Kim Deal’s) return on the album’s closer “So Long To Wait”, which neatly sums up the prevailing formula of acoustic strumming, stately fiddle and another simplistic chorus.
“Love Is Proximity” certainly represents a departure from the more electric sound of Essex Chanel’s previous album of new material, 2008s “Dancing At Weddings”, and reaffirms Wiggins’ desire to span as many genres as possible with his songwriting. And whilst it may not be his best work, given its glimpses of greatness and it’s creator’s musical history one can’t help but want to know what Essex Chanel is going to come up with next.