#3. Elsinore – Yes Yes Yes
Full disclosure: I know Elsinore quite well, and have probably seen them play close to thirty times in the past five years. The songs from Yes Yes Yes have had ample time to seep into the deepest recesses of my brain, attaching themselves to the neurons of nostalgia and filling the synapses of sentimentality.
Sure, Yes Yes Yes came out last year on Urbana, IL’s Parasol Records imprint, but it is truly an old soul of a record. Most of the ten tracks here have been gestating in the band’s live set for a few years now – changing, growing, developing – and were finally put to tape back in 2009. With the maturation of material came a patient, deliberate, and well-manicured album, ripe with resolute arrangements and well-versed inter-band chemistry. The album is not as much a studio adventure in piled-on accompaniment, as it is a picturesque document of this collection of songs in their truest and boldest form.
It’s the record Elsinore has been wanting to make since singer Ryan Groff released his solo album, also on Parasol, back in 2007, where “Landlocked”, “Gasoline”, and “Lines” were first presented in their stripped-down infancy. The release also marked a transition for the band, who had carved a niche in their hometown of Champaign-Urbana as a rootsy, acoustic-based indie-folk band with rustic instrumentation and lush harmonies. Groff had already gained attention for his voice, which turns from soulful to angelic on a dime and commands a range unheard in today’s popular music. Imagine a bespectacled Shannon Hoon (but more straight-edge and impervious to gloom), singing more like Jeff Buckley as the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar.
If that sounds too, I dunno… earthy and whitebread for you trendy, edgy, counter-culture types, well, I suppose the band felt a change was needed as well. What followed was a pretty remarkable transformation, as the band seemingly threw all of their collective musical influences into a pot, set the burner to a low simmer, and stirred in their new material as it came, song by song. What results is a cohesive and unified pop record that manages to evoke the sounds of acts as disparate as Grizzly Bear and Ben Folds, Fleet Foxes and Led Zeppelin, Death Cab For Cutie and Andrew Bird, Radiohead and the Beach Boys, Modest Mouse and The Beatles, all the while staying true to themselves and wholly within the limits of their own sonic identity.
The band pulls out all the stops in the studio, implementing the very real and very effective horns and strings quite liberally, but always in compliment to Groff’s biting Telecaster chops, drummer Dave Groff’s surgical precision, bassist Chris Eitel’s understated underpinnings, and keyboardist Mark Woolwine’s crucial piano, organ, and tasteful synth textures. The orchestration, instrumentation, and overall arrangement doesn’t ever feel bloated, but rather recalls the big-budget studio sessions of the 1970’s, with four-piece rock bands utilizing the talents of well-traveled session players to augment their sound just enough to warrant gold record status, at the very least.
It’s no secret that Elsinore are, at the very least, competent and deft musicians with even more skilled tradesmen a mere phonecall away, but what really sets Yes Yes Yes apart from similarly ambitious recordings by equally skilled instrumentalists is the musical intuition and the throughline of well-conceived songcraft. Again, all bias aside, I truly love every song on this record, and would stand behind any of them. “Landlocked” opens the album with Groff chopping out some Doug Martsch-style guitar work, bending and climbing up the progression of the riff until the song breaks wide open with Pride’s kick and off-beat hat driving the pulsing tempo. “Involuntary climate change will bring about acid rain \ and we’ll all be wearing umbrella hats in twenty years or so \ People in the Midwest have giant hearts inside their chests \ We’re landlocked by cash crops” sings Groff, resigned to the good-hearted limitations of the heartland’s residents. The latter half of the song’s movement, “In the Sea & Air”, reaches such a crescendo that when the bombast subsides, I half expect to hear Groff leave us with “… and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
The next four songs are picture-perfect: The haunting beauty of “Body of Water”, the classic mid-tempo swoon of “Lines”, the disco breaks of “Chemicals”’ soaring chorus, and honeycomb drip of “Breathing Light” all combine to bolster the heartwood of the album, showcasing the band’s versatility and musical prowess. Groff’s vocal ability can’t be overstated, and it truly steals the show at times. If not for the bedrock of pop song perfection, it might seem superfluous or self-indulgent, but working in tandem, the two elements become a musical force to be reckoned with. No one in their right mind could scoff at Groff’s pipes (catch him solo for a real treat), and you would be hard pressed to find a big enough Scrooge to frown their way through the entirety of Yes Yes Yes. To be sure, there’s something for everyone to love – and at the extreme minimum, appreciate – here. Maybe the overt positivity of the title track’s chorus is destined to repel the dour Interpol acolytes, but to assume the song – and even the album as a whole – is some kind of motivational feel-good romp would be selling Groff short as a lyricist. Sure, the shouts of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” seem emphatically one-dimensional at first, but he follows by surprisingly twisting the sentiment towards the sardonic: “… isn’t that the answer you were looking for? \ That’s not the answer you’ll get \ ‘cause you’d be putting words in my mouth”. Being manipulated? Misrepresented? Misunderstood? Ian Curtis sang about that stuff, too!
So by now I’m sure this all reads as some big sloppy kiss of a sales pitch for my best buds in Elsinore, and you know, I would be holding back if I didn’t say that I can’t think of a more deserving set of guys to get all the spoils of rock success. They truly are some of the nicest, most genuinely likable and well-intentioned people you will ever see on a stage. But I would hope that you might credit me with just enough critical candor to trust that I wouldn’t be writing any of this if I didn’t truly believe with every fiber of my being that Elsinore has grown into an exceptional band, in and out. They have arrived, and I’ve been privileged enough to watch it happen, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m foisting them upon you now not as a means of helping them reach the next step of their musical careers, but because this is classically crafted, beautiful music that you deserve to hear, whether I’m friends with the guys who made it or not. This is the kind of music you should be sharing with your friends and family, supporting with your money, and using as grounds to support the argument for continued and bolstered musical education in our country, because Elsinorereally do showcase the returns of that crucial endeavor, and moreover, they continue a tradition of songwriting and musicianship that has been entrenched in our airwaves and stereos for the past six decades, paying informed tribute to contemporaries and legends alike, while forging their own unique path like those before them. Listen up.
RIYL: Oh, well, I suppose Grizzly Bear, Ben Folds, Fleet Foxes, Led Zeppelin, Death Cab For Cutie, Andrew Bird, Radiohead, the Beach Boys, Modest Mouse, The Beatles, Built To Spill, Jeff Buckley, and hell, maybe even Blind Melon