Smile Politely

EP Review: Elsinore Life Inside an Elephant

I’ve never been comfortable with musicians that seem ambitious for popularity. I’m not sure how I got like this — maybe it’s a byproduct of coming of age in the 90s, when every band was supposed to show disdain for their audience. But, I’m going to go right ahead and admit that’s been one of my issues with Elsinore from the beginning. As soon as I first heard “Yes Yes Yes” I heard the sound of a band that clearly wanted to be loved by more than forty people at Mike ‘n Molly’s on a Wednesday night. This is a band with bigger plans, plans that involve hundreds, if not thousands, singing along to their songs.

Forget being the face of the indie rock scene in Champaign (whatever that means). Ryan Groff seems to want to be one of the voices of American rock. Period. Which leaves me to ask myself, what the hell is wrong with playing music and actually acting like you want lots of people to enjoy it? Too many bands still take the opposite approach, working hard on music and then seeming to not care if people listen or not. That’s probably the type of band I would be in, and we’d probably suck.

It is not like Elsinore is plopping down three power chords and singing throw away lyrics about the California coastline. The band’s songs are populated with fairly dense musical and lyrical themes. Sure the music is often pretty, but with the exception of “Yes Yes Yes”, their songs mostly make their listeners earn it. Plus, Groff writes songs that work well for his band’s strengths and clearly doesn’t concern himself too much with the latest musical headwinds. Despite the band’s continued use of keyboard and the occasional use of reverb effects, you are not likely to mistake them for Beach House. This may partially explain why it’s taken last year’s Yes Yes Yes so long to gain the type of exposure many locals expected right away.

But that release is finally building buzz with prominent advertising campaigns and exposure on national television shows, making this is an opportune time to release some new music. So along comes the new Life Inside an Elephant EP, and the title track sounds appropriately gigantic. The song was written to bellow off the walls of a stadium. Listening on headphones, it almost sounds like there is a crowd murmuring in the background as the first notes hang out in the air. The guitar riff starts up, and in comes the ever-upward keyboard line. The rest of the song focuses on Elsinore’s strengths — driving melodies, massive guitar chords and lots of room for Groff’s vocals.  The music builds and builds to the inevitable climactic moment, only to have things quickly pulled away for the slow fade out. Other bands may have just sat on the big moment for too long or continued to build to a more furious peak, but Elsinore wisely holds back, and the song is more powerful for it.

The other tracks on the EP are hold-me-overs until (I assume) they will appear in different form on a full length. Both of the “chamber” mixes feel like they are not fully there, sketches of the songs to come. These are the versions it would be fun to hear after you are familiar with the final album version. It’s not that they aren’t lovely, but I feel like I’m getting the bonus tracks, and I really just want the definitive version. Despite these gripes, lovers of Groff’s pipes are bound to enjoy the way his voice melds with the strings on “The Thermostat, The Telephone”.

The chamber version of “Ultraviolence,” a song with some of Elsinore’s most unflinching lyrics, is more of a keeper. It’s helped along by the ubiquitous Vivian McConnell (Santah, Grandkids) whose duet with Groff works much better than I would have expected. The song also has a harp (replacing a keyboard line?), so that’s nice. But I’m still holding out for the buoyant version that is bound to be on the next proper album. My only question is whether McConnell will appear on that as well.

The EP ends with a remix of “Life Inside an Elephant” which is fine, but not really all that necessary.

I get the feeling that Ryan Groff is the type of guy that, in another lifetime, would be the unemployed businessman who still puts on a suit to watch TV every day. Put another way, in an era where bands like Animal Collective consistently seem indifferent to the huge audiences they have, Elsinore continues to play to the audience they want. And if this EP is an accurate preview of the things to come, expect them to start finding the stadiums to fill their songs.

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