Although they may not be a household name just yet, New York’s Elk City has just released their fourth full length, House of Tongues. Relying on a blend of rock, soul, and jazz, it’s almost shocking when you learn that they’ve been around since 1997 and are still struggling to make people sit up and pay attention to them. Perhaps the well-crafted House of Tongues will assist them with such a weighty task.
The real star of Elk City’s sound is singer Renee LoBue and her sultry and versatile vocals. At times, she channels a more modern, Regina Spektor-esque sound, but LoBue is clearly at her best when she’s paying homage to idols like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. On “Wire Goats”, she stretches her range and comes off like a Parisian female version of David Bowie, which is interesting, considering that LoBue is from New York and not Paris. In another instance, on “Real Low Riders”, the opening track, tightly wound guitars and brushes of percussion dance around LoBue’s modern-sounding vocals, as bursts of handclaps and her catchy vocal refrain close out the lively song. Her spirited and flexible vocal range give Elk City an edge that not all bands have and that proves to be a fantastic focal point of House of Tongues.
“Wire Goats” isn’t the only song that finds LoBue channeling her inner Parisian—a great deal of the album showcases a more sophisticated and “European” sound, of sorts, for the band. The lyrics of “Nine O’Clock In France” even literally deal with this subject as LoBue sings about a dream vacation for some while singing “It’s nine o’clock in France / We’re going out for cocktails and ice cream”, and then later lets the reality of “A dead end job / a dead end town” set in. Not many bands are brave enough to try and pull off a European sound when they are clearly American, and you have to give Elk City props for attempting to do so, even if they occasionally churn out some duds like “Neat Knight”, “Protection”, and “Stars”, the latter of which actually contains the lyric, “When I stop wishing on stars”. Groan.
When they’re not focusing their attention across the ocean, Elk City also make a few attempts at using humor in their lyrics. On “The Onion”, LoBue sings “Reading The Onion again / peeling the layers right off of me”, referencing the humor publication and, well, an actual onion all in one. Unfortunately, even though this song contains wallops of guitar feedback and pummeling drums, the superficial attempt at humor falls flat, as does the last few minutes of the song, which probably should have been edited from from six minutes to three, at the very least. Overall, House of Tongues is a nice addition to Elk City’s discography, but it does provide some credence as to why this band has been around for 13 years and still has a relatively small following. Having a versatile sound is a good thing, but so is having a strong sound identity. It seems that Elk City is too busy trying to reinvent their sound with each album that they still have yet to figure out who they really are.