[19 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I realize that I’m not here to review a band’s PR habits, but I still see words like “Daliesque” and “audio ninjas” in a biography/description as red flags. This isn’t an altogether negative thing. When my guard is up, that just means that the music needs to work a little harder for me to overlook those red flags. And Elephant Wrecking Ball is a band that makes me more than happy to go back on my judgment, one where I happily push aside the red flags and bask in the knowledge that Ropeadope has signed on a little winner. Barren Serenade is yet another album in a sub-genre where it’s becoming harder and harder to stand out from the pack. And all the same, Elephant Wrecking Ball is already proving itself to be very unique.
Elephant Wrecking Ball is a trio, but the band is not too proud to reach out for outside help. You’ve got trombonist Scott Flynn, bassist Dan Africano and drummer Neal Evan occasionally teaming up with guitarist Mike Keenan (of John Brown’s Body fame) and saxophonist Drew Sayers. The two “audio ninjas” in question are Ben Sword and Scott Hannay, offering up two remixes of Elephant Wrecking Ball songs tacked on the end of the album. Flynn relies on a number of effects for his horn, most notably overdubbing and a rebound/echo that is perfectly timed with the meter. Thankfully, he never overdoes it. Elephant Wrecking Ball never goes for the obnoxious wildcard at any time, come to think of it.
The six (proper) songs on Barren Serenade are inviting and engaging, never trying to sail over your head in that obscurity that plagues many an instrumental rookie band. Themes are unrolled and explored but the listener is never left stranded. The first track alone is a perfect example of this. After you are lured in with Flynn’s easy-going melody, “Stomp Stomp Stomp” nails you to the wall at the 2:21 mark where the figure opens up, melody lines are multiplied, and the rhythm section slips into the next gear. Coming up with a label for this is messy business. It’s not a left-field combination you never heard before, but it grooves without succumbing to the bookish tendencies of self-serious jazz. Things get moodier by the time Keenan straps on his guitar for “Five Bucks”, an impressive display of noise and control on part of the band and its guest. And if there were a track on which to show off your sultry saxophonist friend, it’s on waltz that looses its hair like “This Is How We Slow Dance”.
And as good as those 33 minutes are, the two remix tracks that conclude the album are a delight, one that stretches the album’s already-elastic confines. “Erin’s Song” is twisted into “Erin’s Sword”. Ben Sword throws Flynn’s melody lines into that isolation area of ambient music, the pulse is absent. The beats do eventually arrive, though they buoy the trombone lines rather than swallow them. “Chippy the Elephant” is even stranger and a bigger treat. Described as an “8-bit Remix by Scott Hannay”, I dare you to think of anything else other than a Nintendo game when you hear it. The edge of “Strutty the Elphant” (a song that appears on both of EWB’s previous albums) is gone. But it hasn’t been smoothed over, it’s been replaced by an aspect so foreign to jazz that it might as well, be a new genre. Nintendo Remix, or something like that.
Here’s the part of the review where I saw that Elephant Wrecking Ball will soon be on its way to bigger and better things. Well, the band already started that journey and are uncovering new things all the time. The group released Spacement Sessions, Live Demolition and now this. I’d say Elephant Wrecking Ball is already on their way. This is one of those bands where you really don’t need to read its bio, just put the thing on and figure things out on your own. It’s more fun that way.