Song in the Air: CD
Ho. Ly. Shit. To my way of thinking, Elliott has been that band for a long time now, the band that I expect greatness of, the band that I expect to transcend whatever musical limitations I can imagine and blow my mind with an album that I couldn’t have even dreamed of hearing. I’ve been expecting that since 2000’s False Cathedrals which was the single best artistic achievement I heard that year. It was majestic, soaring, transcendent – all those big fluffy words which seem really important and convey really big ideas. It was a pop record, it was emo, it side-stepped every sub-genre as soon I had managed to pin it down; it remains one of my favorite albums to this day. I’m sure I reveal my bias as soon as I note that I have been waiting for this new record for three years. I’ve been tracking the songs which have leaked onto the internet. I’ve been anticipating hearing the whole goddamn thing on my headphones and when it showed up in my mail this morning, I knew how I’d be spending my afternoon – headphones on, listening to Elliott. And simply put, the three-year wait was worth it. While “Song in the Air” seems to be a radical departure from the poppier textures and conceits of False Cathedrals, it’s really an extension and advancement of the ideas which were set out and tentatively explored within that album’s confines. False Cathedrals was, to an apparently large degree, a bridge between the more straight-forward emo and pop of Elliott’s debut, U.S. Songs, and this sonic experiment which seems to ignore emo altogether in favor of expressing more symphonic and classical tendencies (perhaps best acknowledged by the addition of a string quartet fronted by The Rachel’s Christian Frederickson). The loops and beats which helped characterize parts of False Cathedrals are still present; that instrumentation now helps shape a soundscape which pays more attention to shoegazing bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine than punk bands like Rites Of Spring or Embrace, which owes a large debt to bands like Placebo and almost no debt at all to ones like Hankshaw. And what it boils down to is this – despite changing two members (Jay Palumbo, now playing in Thirty-Two Frames, and Jonathan Mobley), Chris Higdon and Kevin Ratterman have created a masterful work, drenched in reverb and layers, crisp and clear yet still dripping with mystery. Higdon’s angelic, soaring, childlike vocals still sound more like a choirboy’s than a singer for what is ostensibly a rock and roll band; while it still sounds like Higdon is yearning for something, his vocal tones also suggest that he knows exactly what he wants… and that he won’t be denied. Ratterman, the other remaining holdover from the False Cathedrals sessions, is still wielding his studio like an instrument, seemingly treating the recording process as another possible track. Frankly, I can’t begin to imagine how Elliott could perform these songs live without taking stringed instruments on tour and even if that were the case, these songs would still be difficult to perform live. There’s simply too much here, a embarrassment of musical wealth to hear, explore and mine, a host of new ideas which have yet to see birth in a rather insular, self-absorbed scene. And while it’s true that Song in the Air is a studio album in the best sense of the term – which in turn means that the band must necessarily turn inward and close the door to the outside world – what emerges is a map of uncharted musical territory which challenges even the best and brightest songwriters to explore it.