Have you heard of Elk City before? If you have, it’s likely been in reference to the western Oklahoma community that’s only marginally known for its proximity to historic Route 66. Listening to the polished pop of the New York band by the same name however, there are probably more connections to be drawn from the Mother Road’s western terminus near Laurel Canyon than anything coming out of the Sooner State. The spirit of the Hollywood Hills neighborhood that became synonymous with 70’s folk titans like Joni Mitchell and CSNY is alive and well in the music of this East Coast quartet, willfully exuded in its nostalgic mix of rock, folk, and soul. These seemingly obvious influences bring with it two contradictory sentiments, however. The cool assurance and finessed attitude on the band’s fifth LP are hallmarks of musicians who have honed their craft over a lengthy period of time – scene veterans at the peak of their powers. Yet one must wonder how, after thirteen years, a band with this kind of potential continues to operate so inconspicuously.
Confounding though it is, Elk City’s anonymity in the Internet age becomes a trivial matter when listening to their latest effort, House of Tongues. Clocking in at 40 minutes in length, there are no duds among the ten pristine tracks, which vary in tone from sexy and sophisticated to bold and brazen.
At the center of it all is vocalist Renée LoBue, who, along with drummer Ray Ketchem, has been a member of the group since its inception back in 1997. Blessed with a wonderfully smoky alto (though not quite as raspy as Beach House’s Victoria Legrand), comparisons to luminaries like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde are frequent and deserved. An impressive and sometimes trying exercise in restraint, LoBue keeps her range rather narrow. This typically peppers the otherwise taut songs with a confessional atmosphere, but a track like “Protection” illustrates that behind the vulnerable façade lies one muscular set of pipes; bolstered by guitarist Sean Eden’s shimmering chord structures, LoBue finally unloads (“I’ll fight one more time / fight for the rent / fight for my paycheck”) and sends her voice into the stratosphere.
You could go track by track playing spot-the-influence (Blondie, David Bowie, The New Pornographers, etc.), but to do so would mean wasting opportunities to appreciate some seriously underrated songwriting. “Nine O’Clock in France” is Parisian dreaming from the perspective of a hardened New Yorker; exclamations like, “Cause it’s 9 o’clock in France / we’re going out for cocktails and ice cream” are dreamily sung by LoBue while Ketchem lays down a super-hip drum groove around which Eden’s reverb-affected tone floats. Clearly one for metaphorical storytelling, LoBue uses “The Onion” as her vehicle for a journey of self-discovery. As she peels back the layers of her life (“I finally have the courage to look into the mirror / and stand up for my life”), the rest of the band adds layers with evasive psychedelic guitar effects and clattering percussion. At the exact moment most bands would give into gratuitous release, Elk City shrewdly steers the song toward a brighter tempo and sprightly jam session which then unexpectedly halts just shy of 6 minutes.
Elsewhere, more treats wait. The “Oh la la” chorus and subsequent vocal harmonies of “Neat Knight” are instantly memorable. On “For the Uninitiated,” Sean Eden works a little bit of Peter Buck’s jangle into his tone while Ketchem delivers his finest deliberately sloppy drum fill and LoBue sings, “This is for the American girls / I don’t know where you go at night.” Despite the snarky title, “Jerks on Ice” intones a soothing mantra (“They always seem so mellow”) while the rest of the band goes sublime with a little vibraphone and just two alternating chords from keyboardist Carl Baggaley.
It remains a mystery why Elk City has yet to receive their moment in the spotlight. House of Tongues brings with it a full palette of emotions, flawless technical execution, and unexpected turns; challenging to the average listener but highly rewarding to anyone who can appreciate a Neutral Milk Hotel or Belle & Sebastian record. In an era with so much hackneyed and lackluster music available just a click away, it’s a travesty that this stellar act isn’t getting more attention.