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Tainted love

On Earlimart's new album, a look at the ambiguities in relationships

The bitterness inside the sweet on "Fakey Fake," the opening salvo of Earlimart's new album, "Mentor Tormentor," is easy to miss at first. The song begins with Aaron Espinoza's delicate acoustic guitar and rustling whisper of a voice, tiptoe soft and telling a secret to a close friend.

"Always been down with one of the two," Espinoza sings. "You were the fake and I was the fool. But you were too young to know all the rules, so I was the fake and you were the fool." The lyrics, cryptic as a code only understood between the two parties, seemingly shift perspective. The tension builds and turns electric. The drums, dry and unobtrusive at first, grow heavier, angrier. Soon the song sounds like an accusation - maybe a mutual one. Lyrically veiled though it may be, the tune sounds poisonous and pained, as if drawn from personal experience.

"Definitely," Espinoza agrees over the phone, heading to a show in Portland, Ore. (Earlimart hits Harpers Ferry on Sunday.) "As you get older, it seems you have less and less friends. Recently, I've had some longtime friendships hit the road, which was unfortunate. But everybody has to deal with it."

He's trying to downplay the rancor that clearly fueled the song, but when reminded that the track leads off - and in some ways set the tone for - an album that bristles with songs about dashed hope and getting hurt, Espinoza laughs. He's not giving details, but he knows he's been caught.

"I think it's pretty much about the gray area in relationships," says Earlimart's co-songwriter and bassist Ariana Murray, who with Espinoza forms the group's nucleus (touring members include ex-Eels drummer Derek Brown, guitarist Michael Orendy, and keyboardist Andrew Lynch). "Even with the best relationships, there's another side to things, and the people who are closest to you are also the ones who are capable of doing the most damage - whether they know they are or not."

It might be tempting to assume the track refers to the past romantic relationship between Espinoza and Murray, who immediately started making music together when they met a decade ago as housemates in Los Angeles. But you'd be wrong. They remain close collaborators, friends, and business partners (the pair recently launched Majordomo Records in partnership with their label, Shout! Factory, and intend to sign other artists to the imprint). So, are they the Sonny and Cher of indie rock? Murray cracks up at the comparison.

"Aaron and I were together for a few years, and then we weren't, and there were definitely some weird times because of that," says Murray in a separate interview from her home in Portland, where she moved earlier this year after growing up in LA. "But even with a breakup in the mix, we figured out that we were good enough friends, and it didn't really stop us from wanting to still make music together. It didn't get messy because we love each other."

Espinoza says the new album's collection of first-person bummers doesn't always apply to personal history. "When I was younger, I think I sabotaged myself to get to those points," he says. "Every time I made a record, something terrible would have to happen. But I don't feel like I have to do that anymore, and now that I'm older" - both he and Murray are 32 - "I don't want to do that. I don't always have to get into a huge drag-out breakup fight, go get drunk, and get thrown in jail to write a song. That's how I used to do it, though."

If there's one influence that courses through the lush melodies, plush beds of strings, and the album's lovingly gift-wrapped heartache, it's the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, with whom Espinoza recorded and was close friends. Earlimart's previous album, 2004's "Treble & Tremble," was even dedicated to Smith, who committed suicide in 2003. Softly probing new tracks such as "Bloody Nose," "The World," and "The Little Things" sound like valentines to him.

Working with Smith, Espinoza remembers, "was an amazing experience but really humbling, too. You want to be able to hang with your peers, but that guy was just ridiculous. If I could have half the talent he had, that would be something. I mean, if you weren't influenced by him, you didn't have a heart. That guy was too good to even be here. He was too pure for this place."

BITS & PIECES Tonight: Baker celebrates the release of its new CD at T.T. the Bear's. Tomorrow: The National plays the Roxy. Qui, featuring Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow, is at the Middle East Upstairs. Buttercup is at the Plough & Stars. Sunday: The Donnas play the Paradise. Sunset Rubdown (featuring members of Wolf Parade) headline the Middle East Downstairs. The Charms are at Great Scott. A multiband Bob Marley tribute gets underway at Bill's Bar. Tuesday: Phil Lesh and Friends kick off the first of a two-night stand at the Orpheum. Wednesday: Jesse Malin is at T.T. the Bear's. Casey Desmond plays Great Scott. Thursday: Gogol Bordello is at the Roxy. Hot Hot Heat is at the Paradise. The Ray Mason Band plays the Plough & Stars. The Bon Savants's Thom Moran is at Great Scott. The Vital Might play the Church, a new Kilmarnock Street club filling the vacancy left by the Linwood's closing.

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