Smile Politely

Album review: Elsinore’s The Chemicals

As a relative newcomer to Champaign, the sheer number of people packed into the Highdive last Saturday for Elsinore was thrilling. To have so many come out to a local band’s EP release speaks volumes about the community of music lovers in this town and their willingness to support their own.

That alone is something both Elsinore and Champaign-Urbana’s “stayers” should be proud of. But is that where it ends? Is Elsinore simply the neighborhood band everyone comes to see play, or are they worthy of greater praise?

Elsinore’s new EP, The Chemicals, is a not-quite-preview of their full-length, Yes Yes Yes, planned for release this summer. While it does include two songs from the upcoming album, it’s otherwise filled with versions of songs you can expect not to hear-one calm and one spirited remix, one basement recording, and one EP-only song, most of which are enjoyable enough in their own right to warrant a separate release.

The EP kicks off with “Chemicals”, a high-energy opener with Strokes-esque charisma and all the charm that a good single needs. But instead of playing like a perfect three-minute pop song, halfway through “Chemicals” pulls away from its carefree pop essence to turn more sinister, slowing the tempo and replacing snappy beats with heavy electric guitars and uneven tones. I’m hooked by this shift in mood, pulled in by the ebb and flow of the song. And after this weekend’s show, I can’t hear “Chemicals” without seeing the cheesy characters of the music video, which the band unveiled at Saturday’s show. The video tells a story of high-class snobbery and failed attempts at revenge through the medium of silent film. But what does the song have to do with this tongue-in-cheek murder film starring excessive mustaches and an embittered witch? Other than the tempo of the film, which takes its cues from the song perfectly, I have no clue.

“Body of Water”, the second true preview of the full-length, is a lovely, soft complement to “Chemicals'” loud, fast-paced beat. Its lush opening builds into a percussive release, giving us more hints as to the tempo changes and shifting moods we’ll hear in Yes Yes Yes. And while I’ll admit I have a weak spot for singers that, well, can’t really sing, Ryan Groff is not one of these singers. He pours his smooth voice into each word, the rest of the band building harmonies around his strong lead. With this combination of voices, there’s no need to be forgiving. The notes feel effortless, sewn together with ease.

In the first remix of the EP, “Breathing Light”, the strings are clearly the star, with Groff’s vocals floating delicately overhead. It’s Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) without the theatrics, a soft, patiently unfolding piece. The EP then moves on to “Evens”, another even-keel song without the crispness of the earlier pieces. Since this is the basement recording version of the song, we can expect a bit more polish to the finished version, a polish I’m not sure the tune requires. Not every song on an album can be the star, and while “Evens” lacks the cleverness of some of Elsinore’s music, it plays a solid supporting role to the liveliness around it.

The mellowed out “Evens” is followed by what is certainly my favorite song not to be found on the full-length. In fact, I love this quirky, big horns, remixed version of “Yes Yes Yes” so much that I fear inevitable disappointment when I hear the original this summer. The remix was done by Eric Enger of Gentleman Auction House, and the horns and vocals are pulled from the original, while the rest is Enger’s addition. The song is pumped full of attitude, with Groff as conductor of a chorus of chants and handclaps. The energy is palpable, tangible, contagious, twisted up in a mix of discord and harmony.

The album finishes with the only song that somehow feels unnecessary. “Hearts & Sleeves” is a bare piece showcasing Groff’s vocals with only a piano as backing. Yet the song lacks the intimacy required to pull off such simplicity, and it’s the one song that I feel the EP could do without.

After last weekend’s show, the band headed north for a two-month tour that takes them from New England through the Southeast (with a stop in my hometown!), before heading back home on March 30th to open for St. Vincent at the Highdive. They’ll then likely be buckling down to push through the last of the details for Yes Yes Yes, and (fingers crossed) give us a firm release date for this summer.

A fellow listener asked me on Saturday if I thought Elsinore would ever make it big. Can Elsinore put together an album that feels like a story unto itself, that leads you from end to beginning in one evolving pulse instead of the bit-by-bit treatment EPs inevitably fall into?

I think that question remains to be answered. But by the end of the EP, Elsinore has accomplished what I believe they set out to do: they made me curious. I’m hungry for the finished product. I want to know more.

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