Vermont's Ekis trade in sunny, impeccably played world-pop; imagine Paul Simon and Dave Matthews' rural love-child, and you're almost there. Formed in 1999 by singer-songwriter Jay Ekis, the band is a regular on the Green Mountain bar/coffeehouse scene, entertaining audiences statewide with user-friendly boogie and uplifting lyrics. Ekis' latest, The Hidden Jar, offers 10 jaunty numbers that are handsomely crafted, if a little safe.
But who listens to this stuff to feel dangerous? Like a game of Frisbee on a spring afternoon, Ekis' music is relaxing and fun. The group's command of melody and rhythm is impressive, as is the interplay between band members. Coproduced by Jay Ekis and Colin McCaffrey, the disc sounds crisp; each tune is well arranged, voiced and recorded.
Ex-Gordon Stone Band bassist Rudy Dauth's work on "Outside of Town" is delightfully rugged, providing a solid foundation for Ekis' funky guitar vamps. Drummer Carter Stowell taps the ride cymbal with understated precision, never overstepping his bounds. The tune has a smooth groove, like rafting down a lazily winding river. Ekis' voice is a little rough in spots, though, lacking in color and nuance, and it's unfortunately mixed a little too high.
"So We Dance" bobs along, assisted by a horn section comprising local brassmen Brian Boyes, Robinson Morse and Zach Tonnissen. The band uses space extraordinarily well; although the song is fairly complex, each player refrains from stepping on another's toes. Ekis might want to hold off on rapping on future compositions, however; his awkward "freestyle" on the track spoils an otherwise tasty Afro-funk workout.
Much of the album's charm comes from its guest performances; Boyes' trumpet intro to "Everyday Happening" is salsa-riffic, and Adam Frehm's pedal steel adds an Americana twist to the band's global groove. McCaffrey's lilting organ work on "Pretty Scars" colors the track's edges, adding a smart harmonic counterpoint. Ekis' guitar leads are likewise sophisticated, loaded with slick melodic phrasing. There are a few missteps here and there, such as the by-the-numbers ballad "Pink Shadows." The track suffers from listless vocals and sluggish pacing, but at least it appears near the end of the disc.
Loaded with intricate polyrhythms and interlocking melodies, Ekis' tunes are highly elaborate for a pop act. Although a lot of The Hidden Jar wouldn't sound out of place in an advertisement for a cruise ship vacation, it's tough to find fault with a band that performs with such enthusiasm. Hear them on May 21, at the Bee's Knees in Morrisville.