“By taking their time with the songs, the 10 tracks touch somewhat on the more ethereal sound of classic albums on the 4AD — due to Robert’s keyboard work — while still relying on both a hard edge with the guitars and a pop sense that runs through them.”
There’s some precedent for a married couple comprising a good indie rock band:
You’ve got Low, for one thing, and The Weepies, and there’s Ian MacKaye and Amy
Farina’s duo The Evens. By the same token, there have been some decent acts
involving a parent and their child: Jeff Tweedy took dad-rock to the next level when he
and son Spencer teamed up as Tweedy.
But when you venture into forming a band that includes mom, dad and son—well, you’re
treading on thin ice. The phrase “family band” often conjures something hokey, like the
Partridge Family setting out on the road in their multicolored school bus.
Essential Machine, it’s safe to say, doesn’t fit the profile of your standard family band.
The indie three-piece, which calls the Pittsburgh suburb of Greensburg home, has
always been the vehicle of married couple Karen and R.J. Dietrich; they put out their
first record under the moniker in 2009. But a funny thing happened in 2014, after the
duo had already been recording and playing together for years: They incorporated son
Robert into their act, on keyboards.
It’s worth noting, when we discuss Essential Machine as a family band, that it wasn’t
created by a musical mom for didactic purposes, or crafted by a stage dad looking to
establish a pop-music phenomenon. It was established by Karen and R.J., for Karen
and R.J., and happened to grow organically to include their son. The core of the band
still revolves around lyrics that both bring and melodies the two craft.
Karen is a published author of poetry and a memoir, and her first novel is forthcoming from Grand
Central Publishing in March 2020. (Now, as a three-piece, the band's writing process
is more diffuse, but the primary duties remain largely the same.)
Essential Machine’s latest effort, Wildfires, released in April 2019, marks a milestone of
sorts for the band: Recorded with Jake Hanner from Donora, in his project studio, the
LP is the first full length record for Essential Machine. The tracks are cinematic in tone
and texture, no doubt the result of Hanner’s craft and influence. Robert’s synth work
features prominently within the soundscape of Wildfires. This expanded timbre, laden
with warmth, creates movement throughout the album.
When you listen to Wildfires, you’ll likely get lost in the world the band builds with music;
one thing you probably won’t be worried about is whether the band shares a last name.
It’s one thing to be a family band, with all the trappings that might entail (the matching
outfits, the bonding on the road, the Partridge Family bus, if that’s what you want).
Essential Machine, though, could be considered something else: a band that also
happens to be made up of a nuclear family.