Review: The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library – Volume One (2011)
It’s interesting how The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library came into my life. I’ll be the first to admit that I thought The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library was an actual library when I first saw mentions of it popping up on my facebook feed but a quick click of link told me that if I wanted to find out what happened to Percy Jackson, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library is not where I wanted to be. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to check out any books from The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library because The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library isn’t a library at all! They’re a band! And without a record store called Repeat The Beat, I would probably never be aware of their existence.
You see, one day, in middle school, I walked into Repeat The Beat and was told by one of the record slingers there to give Neutal Milk Hotel’s just released In The Aeroplane Over The Sea a listen. I loved it, of course, and some fourteen years later, I became smitten, due to my fondness for the ukulele and cover songs, for Neutral Uke Hotel, a band that is exactly what it’s name would lead you to believe it is. Through Neutral Uke Hotel, I discovered the main projects of the men behind the Mangum, Golden Bloom and The Motion Sick. (All three bands did a shared Daytrotter session that’s sure to turn any frown upside down and you can check that out here.) The Motion Sick is lead by a man named Michael J. Epstein, who has recently started another band as he clearly doesn’t have enough and that band? It’s The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, of course!
Through a like of Epstein’s other projects, I decided to give The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library a spin late one night. You see, on this particular night, I’d made plans with not one, not two, but three different friends – All of whom ended up bailing for various reasons. I was all around bummed about getting stood up by my best friend at my dad’s wedding, an event that broke my heart into about a hundred million pieces, and had spent what was going to be a fun night with friends to take my mind off my abysmal personal life, crying and playing video games and eating burnt pop corn. My finest moment? Not quite. Needless to say, this little engine that could desperately needed something to cheer her up. Of course, that “something” ended up being Neutral Uke Hotel’s Daytrotter session, which transitioned into Golden Bloom’s Daytrotter session and, finally, The Motion Sick’s lovely pair of Horseshack recorded tunes. After that, I decided, well, my night couldn’t get any worse. So “now” seemed as any to delve into the uncharted territory of The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library. And I’m glad I did.
From the dark, symphonic opening strains of “Amylee”, it’s apparent that Volume One, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library’s inaugural release, is the documentation of nothing less than a do-it-yourself home orchestra of some of the east coast’s most talented kids. Why’s the disc a documentation of “do it yourself”? Well, because it was all recorded by Epstein in his living room. For a more subdued, less ornate disc, that might not be such a wonder but nothing audible on Volume One would lead you to suspect this cd wasn’t recorded in a real studio with a real soundboard and a real isolation booth. Those things weren’t present for Epstein’s home recorded album and the fact that Epstein and the ladies that compose his Memorial Library managed such a masterpiece without those elements makes Volume One all the more remarkable.
Coming across as the child of Belle & Sebastian and (of course!) Neutral Milk Hotel, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library charms it’s way into your heart with lovely harmonies and instruments as varied as the flute, glockenspiel, kalimb, and thunder stick. The fact that Epstein shares the vocal spotlight with librarians Jane Allard, Holly Collins, and Susannah Plaster make his lyrics sound all the more lovely with their rich detached delivery. The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library seems like a family affair even if the only relation here is between Epstein and his wife, drummer Sophia Cacciola, and that familial quality makes Volume One play out sort of like an audible version of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
The entirety of Volume One has a triumphant sincerity to it, from the clever and beautiful “4th Grade Book Report Blues” to standout tracks “Amylee” and “Stranger”, the latter of which takes heavy lyrical cues from the simplistic genius of Jeff Mangum with lyrics like “Sometimes I find it strange that I’m alive and even stranger that I’ll die”. Even in a sea of gentle charms, The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library’s depths shouldn’t be discounted due to the twee charm of their music. For proof that Volume One offers more than just heartwarming melodies, look no forward than “Civil Engineering”. While the song hooks you in with a chorus of harmonized “La la la”‘s, it also features striking lyrics like “You’re a proselytizing, prophylactic mess and the girl that loves you is circumspect with her bloodshot eyes and her tearstained dress” that paints a vivid picture of… Well, naturally, it reminds me of getting stood up at my dad’s wedding and spending the reception in the bridal room, crying off my perfectly applied make up. But I’m sure any girl who’s been forgotten about on an evening she had such high hopes for will be able to apply the sad lyrical picture painted to her own disappointment.
Long after Volume One‘s ten songs have wrapped up, it’s not shocking at all when you find yourself whispering it’s lyrics and humming it’s melodies to yourself as you go about your day, the desire to listen to Volume One creeping up on you as you walk downtown, do the dishes, or lounge about doing nothing at all. It’s not a surprise, given his pedigree, that The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library elicits this reaction from it’s listeners. With Volume One, Epstein and his band of lovely librarians have released a beautiful album, a great gem of an album that outshines the competition, no matter how solid said competition may be. What is shocking about Volume One, however, is just how deftly produced, mixed, and mastered this opus is with such small means. I challenge you to find me a more lush living room recorded album than the one The Michael J. Epstein Memorial Librarian has produced.