Q: What would happen if you took Television, forced Richard Lloyd to play keyboards, and gave Fred Smith a Fender Rhodes Piano Bass (and turned him into a woman with a dramatic, strident singing voice)?
A #1: Lloyd would be bummed, Smith would be confused.
A #2: They’d be a band called Elk City, and they’d put out a fantastic record called Hold Tight the Ropes.
Okay, okay, so Elk City doesn’t really sound all that much like Television, but the above comparison is as good as any to get a handle on the great music that this beguiling NYC trio create. Based on the vocal dueling between guitarist Peter Langland-Hassan and bassist (er . . . Fender Rhodes Piano Bassist, rather) Renee Lo Bue, the band creates dynamic, dramatic, classic-sounding songs that are filled with tension and release.
With Hold Tight the Ropes, the band has kept the threads of their early work intact, but has also managed to expand on and further hone their extremely distinctive sound. While last year’s The Sea is Fierce EP featured many dynamic shifts, both from song to song and within individual songs, Hold Tight the Ropes sees the band pushing forward with an admirable singularity of purpose: to simply write excellent, unique songs that go for the throat as often as they caress you gently to sleep.
Most songs on the record feature duets between Langland-Hassan and Lo Bue—i.e. he takes a verse, she takes a verse, they harmonize on the chorus. While this is a fairly tried-and-true formula, the juxtaposition between their voices, in this case, is what is truly special. Langland-Hassan, with his dry, midwestern crackle of a voice, evokes the aforementioned Tom Verlaine, as well as, say, Freedy Johnston (albeit with more bite). Lo Bue, on the other hand, is a firebrand—when she sings lower notes, she’s earthy and sexy, and when she stretches out and puts a bit more kick into her delivery, she’s as strident and convincing as any punk rocker you’d care to name. In this respect, Lo Bue bears a resemblance to a less punk version of Kaia Wilson of the Butchies—soft and gentle one minute, and raising the hairs on your neck the next.
The song “Don’t Fight what You’ve Become (Sammy’s Song)” is a prime example of both Lo Bue’s gifts as a singer, and the band’s dynamic skills. She starts her first verse all breathy and sensual, but by the time the chorus hits, she’s in full flight, hollering “No, don’t fight what you’ve become” in such a way that you know she means it. Meanwhile, as Lo Bue sings “Congratulate / It’s almost time to graduate”, the band kicks into full gear, roiling organs, jangling guitars and thudding drums carrying the song to its conclusion.
Elk City is nothing if not a versatile band, evoking images as varied as the twangier side of Neil Young, on the Lo Bue-led “Once and For All”, quirky Americana-inflected indie rock on “Football” and “K-Mart”, and gleeful poppy rock in “Summer Song”. Throughout it all, the band’s constant use of organs and other vintage keyboard sounds contribute to a thick, heady sound that’s at once distinctive and instantly memorable. Langland-Hassan’s stinging guitar leads provide the requisite ragged rock edge, evoking such noted string manglers as the (both above-mentioned) Neil Young and Tom Verlaine. Add to this already intoxicating brew the strident sounds of Lo Bue’s and Langland-Hassan’s voices, and you’ve got a quirky, highly addictive sound that Elk City can truly claim as their own.
While Elk City are probably just a tad too quirky to emerge as the next indie rock sensation, they have certainly succeeded in carving out their own particular niche. It’s equally dark and mysterious as it is warm and inviting, and not only is it worth an initial investigation, it ‘s also one that’s worth revisiting time and time again.