Elk City: New Believers

[29 May 2007]

By Dan Raper

It’s unclear from the group’s recent history if Elk City is now officially a quartet for good, but let’s hope so. On its first three liked (if not particularly high-profile) albums, the Brooklyn trio’s style was perhaps most notable for its boy-girl dueting, a la the Submarines. But guitarist/vocalist Peter Langland-Hassan’s departure made that dynamic a thing of the past. If there’s one hangover from those days call it a call-and-response ideal, the male vocals traded for a guitar or keyboard line. The group’s swelled, though, with a couple of seasoned musicians—Sean Eden from Luna and Barbara Endes from the Lovelies—who help imbue the group with a new life and purpose.

That hangover of the old Elk City is a faint thread not so much sustaining as propelling New Believers. It comes in two aspects, one thematic and one musical. Musically, the band treads between poppy indie-rock and dreamy, organ-driven balladry, reminding me of a number of recent indie faves (most notably Camera Obscura). Singer/songwriter Renee LoBue’s vocals are very of-the-moment, and bring the band in line with this breathy chanteuse-driven sound that’s really increased in popularity over the last few years. The success of Feist, Laura Viers, Regina Spektor and the like may be telling us it’s ok, now, to turn finally away from noise as a defining feature or indie music—or rather, that what we used to classify as ‘alternative’ has become much more mainstream. A musical market shattered into fragments of otherwise straightforward pop discovered in digital backwoods.

But I digress. One of the interesting things about New Believers is a very adult type of optimism. It’s neither born of innocence or the type of deep, almost disturbingly confessional openness of Fryda Hyvonen, but something in LoBue’s voice communicates despite-everythingness. What I mean is, the inflections, though they can mirror a child’s, seem to say: despite everything we’ve been through, it’s going to be OK. So on “You Got Me”, a honky-tonk, trotting number, when the chorus tells us “When there are showers we’ll laugh them away”, we believe it. It’s the same on “Totally Free”, one of the album’s standouts, where “keep a smile on your face” never seems patronizing or blithe. Rather, over a slow, menacing bass riff and fuzzy guitar background, the result is carefree and celebratory—a great combination, and one that would not be expected from one of the more pop-focused female indie acts grabbing headlines at the moment.

One characteristically Elk City thing is melody construction: tiny two-bar or four-bar phrases are stitched together in an apposition that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s a point of interest and a limitation. On more upbeat numbers like “Cherries in the Snow”, it works well, providing an effective vehicle for the song’s propellant bass. But on the more stripped-back numbers, like second track “Little Brother”, the repetitive melodic snippets are exposed for what they are: potential un-capitalized. You might be tempted to label this a symptom of hyperactivity, musically, but songs like “Nighttime” and “Melody” prove otherwise. The former is a single mood, statically beautiful and languid. The latter sunny ‘60s pop, slowly disintegrating until each pause in the phrase “melody, leave me alone” makes you think the song is ending—three times in a row. It’s a neat piece of songwriting which highlights how, when done well, the call-and-response form still has legs to support innovation.

New Believers is not without its missteps—the closing track “Magic Door” is overly simplistic, and gives a false note of childishness to the album’s farewell—but overall, the patent optimism and unironic enjoyment of traditional rock forms is quite refreshing. On “My Type of Criminal”, LoBue asks us to “let her in”; on “You Got Me” she justifies, “You got me and it’s all you need this time.” Who are we to argue?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elk-city-new-believers/