Rachel McElhiney offers an odd kind of back-handed caveat to the seemingly decisive title of her new EP, I Love It Here, by mentioning the song’s title in the EP’s first song in the form of a question. “How can I say I love it here / When all my friends have gone away / And I don’t want to leave you, dear?” McElhiney, once a staple in the Nevada soul-rock scene, recently relocated from Reno to the small town of Big Water, Utah, and a state of pensiveness about place and intention permeates the new material. But, make no mistake. Aside from that unexpected, underlined question of the title, McElhiney’s second EP is more a statement than anything else, and a powerful one at that.
The first thing you’ll notice about McElhiney, besides her modest audio surroundings, is that deceptively powerful voice, which is a beautiful vehicle for her jazz-flecked tunes. Supple and well-rounded, with an almost nostalgic hilt, the vocals seem to transport listeners to another period of song recording, one of smoky jazz halls and freshly minted 78s. Working the engineering board, Spencer Kilpatrick exacerbates this by often keeping the recording bone-dry. I Love It Here is anything but of its time, even on more straightforward pop fare like the bouncy “Family Dollar”.
On “Drivin’,” the EP’s second track, Kilpatrick, here on guest guitar, offers glimmering, sometimes sparkly jazz chords – you won’t hear these on your dollar bin soft-jazz CDs – to McElhiney’s beautiful, bassy saxophone bleats. Then, there’s McElhiney’s voice, here double- and triple-tracked, punctuating the simplest lines – “I’m so tired / I think I’ll close my eyes” – with unusual meaning. The result is relatively straightforward but deceptively so. Its simplicity belies the heart beating beneath it all.
McElhiney’s debut EP, 2019’s incredible Apricot Trees, was an utter triumph, a short and understated collection that would completely knock you off your feet if you weren’t paying attention. The new EP is almost languid in parts by comparison – but in no way boring, soft-served, or utterly passive. The aforementioned “Family Dollar” features some great crossover moments between jangly guitar pop and 1970s soul (the saxophone is spot on), and keeps the proceedings moving. The EP opener “Staring Up” holds overwhelming power when McElhiney, semi-breathlessly, hammers out lines like “I hope I catch my breath / Before I get too high.”
Then, there’s I Love It Here’s exceptional closing piece, “Old Man”. Starting with a spartan drum beat – and we mean really bare – the music begins soaring the second a multi-tracked McElhiney enters the song. The lyrics are simple enough – “Where did your heart go, old man?” – but McElhiney’s nuanced delivery, occasionally breathless, occasionally full of bravado, sells the thing entirely. Kilpatrick’s guitar, here acoustic and upped on the treble knob, offers a pitch-perfect bluesy sashay, leaving McElhiney all the room she needs to tug at your heartstrings.
How long can McElhiney go on putting together these incredible, subtle little EPs before she moves on to something else? Who knows? McElhiney used to cut a mean stance playing saxophone – and, later, singing – for the Reno-based garage soul band Failure Machine. But that surging energy is missing from her solo EPs, which, for the most part, are low-boil fare. But something about them works and works well. With Kilpatrick’s signature recording sound and McElhiney’s otherworldly voice, anything might be possible. So, here’s to EP #3.