You get the feeling that Elk City mastermind Ray Ketchem has a keen eye for detail. Not only does the drummer-producer-engineer display hawkeyed attentiveness on the Elk’s excellently produced records, he was the first onstage (before the set started) at their recent Mercury Lounge gig, adorning their instruments with brightly-colored paper flowers. It was a nice touch that subtly complemented EC’s lushly cinematic tunes.
For their live shows, it’s inevitable that EC strip it down: After all, there’s only three of them, and their records are dense compositions of atmospheric psychotropic-pop. After rearranging Ketchem’s flowers, vocalist-bassist Renee LoBue and vocalist-guitarist Peter Langland-Hassan busted into a rawer, more feral version of “K-Mart” from their most recent CD, Hold Tight the Ropes.
LoBue’s rich, powerful voice and cotton-candy-in-the-cranium melodies are reminiscent of Patti Smith, especially in more anthemic numbers such as “Don’t Fight What You’ve Become (Sammy’s Song)” and the sassy “Three Ears.” Her fuzzed-out piano bass (the distinctive-sounding Fender Rhodes Piano Bass; different from a Fender Rhodes—it’s an actual bass!) can swirl like a Stereolab-stitched floating carpet or just lay low with straight-up bluesy bass lines. Langland-Hassan’s guitar sometimes imbues a lazy-day-on-the-ranch torpor, notably so on the Mazzy Star/Cowboy Junkies-esque tracks “Smile,” “Crimson,” and—one of the catchiest of their many hook-laden hits—”Once and For All.” Sometimes he fetishizes Tom Petty’s melancholic riffs and Dylan-style vocal delivery like on the epic “Rosemary,” but frequently he gets Fender Strat loopy a la Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis or My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
If you had to tie up this big, hard-to-identify strain of elk and crunch ’em down into just one box, the band they would most easily compare to is Yo La Tengo (male and female vocals; trippy guitar and complementary keyboard parts; simple, dancey drum beats). But EC’s sound is more diverse then just collegiate art rock; the group’s strength is their successful synthesizing of wide-ranging styles: classic rock, Americana, indie-rock, art rock, ’80s goth-tinged pop, and ’60s psychedelic-rock.
For such varied influences, the local trio’s four-and-a-half minute pop songs flow, and the likely reason the sounds seep such organic goodness is that all of EC’s tunes are spawned from jams—even the vocal melodies and lyrics. (You can check out the embryonic “jam” versions of their songs on their Web site: www.elkcity.net/jampage.html.) It’s apparent that these large mooselike deer are used to roaming in the same pack—not only in the interplay between the rhythm section and guitar, but especially in the vocal and lyrical dance of LoBue and Langland-Hassan. In the liner notes of Hold Tight the Ropes, there’s an interesting aside, “Peter’s words by Peter, and Renee’s words by Renee.” Considering that each vocalist takes turns singing within the same song, some unusual lyrical associations and stories get created: Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’ve written the lyrics specific to what the other person wrote or were just trying to acknowledge a particular feeling. Either way, the melodies are catchy as hell and damned inviting.