[24 January 2011]
In our current media-oversaturated culture, it’s not only possible for a band to become a household name after playing a handful of gigs, it has become the norm. Then there’s the case of 34-year-old Eric Elbogen, a singer-songwriter whose decade-long list of career deflating obstacles includes sparsely attended tours, an amusing amount of line-up changes, and one very unamusing band name (Say Hi to Your Mom). Despite the fact that his band has “broken up 37 times”, Elbogen has bravely soldiered forward, releasing a new album almost every year since 2002, and eventually finding a home on the Barsuk label. His latest release, Um, Uh Oh, his third since rechristening his now one-man band Say Hi, is an unexpected breakthrough that finds Elbogen fully embracing his underdog status.
Say Hi’s music, often written off as run of the mill indie, is unlikely to make much of a first impression. If it sounds like something you can easily hear someplace else, it’s because you can. For this release, Elbogen adopts Spoon’s minimalist aesthetic and sings like a caffeinated M. Ward. While earlier albums were powered by driving, Cars-y synths, this sparse, homemade collection might best be categorized as polished lo-fi. Musically, there’s scarcely an original moment here, yet Elbogen somehow manages to rise to the task of infusing familiar arrangements with new life. The prickly narrator/composer comes across like a brooding barfly who is a closeted romantic that can turn a memorable phrase on command. If you’re willing to saddle up next to him for a short spell, you might find his downer charm irresistible.
Opener “Dots on Maps” effectively sets the template. Over rumbling bass and judiciously applied piano and guitar, Elbogen sings of a couple speeding willfully toward uncertainly. Nobody here has any answers, but instead of getting too worked up about it, everyone seems content to forge ahead and consider the consequences after the fact. There’s always something ugly just around the corner, and Elbogen flirts with it gleefully. On the twisty leadoff single “Devils”, he’s thrown open his house to the man downstairs and is thus unable to “make it back from the dark, dark, dark”. He closes out the song sarcastically repeating “Oh woe is me indeed”, suggesting that the dark, dark, dark might not be a bad place to be. On the deceptively bouncy “Take Ya Dancin’”, he beckons a young lady to the dance floor with “You’re stomach’s not full of butterflies / And your head’s about to burst / Your organ has no player / And your hands are looking worse.” Might as well party through the pain, right?
The mood lightens considerably for the album’s second half, which is stocked with charmingly effortless Americana. Elbogen seems most at ease when the acoustic guitars are out, as evidenced by the affirming “Lookin’ Good” and the simple yet unexpectedly touching “Trees Are a Swayin’”. He even dips into stormy Elvis Costello balladry on “Shiny Diamonds”, where he reminds himself that “You can’t hide the fact that she’s a diamond, shiny diamond / And you, sir, are merely just a man”.
Say Hi would probably sound like Arcade Fire if Elbogen had ten bandmates instead of zero. While there are certainly moments that beg for the full band treatment (looking your way, “Sister Needs a Settle”), Elbogen’s economical approach to writing and recording winds up being his biggest asset. Given that every track is under three-and-a-half minutes, there’s little time for the few underwhelming tracks to underwhelm. Once the hook is played and the point is made, the page is promptly turned.
By letting the darkness shine in and learning to laugh in the face of potential failure, Eric Elbogen has taken a significant step creatively. This music might be too unoriginal and unassuming for the hipsters, but its got conviction on its side, and conviction goes a long way.