I’d venture that Elephant Revival are a good looking band. In saying that I’m not suggesting any sort of beauty pageant line up of chiselled jaws and glamour pusses – handsome as they may be individually – but together on stage with percussionist Bonnie Paine as the central figure, they look like a band set to make beautiful music. It’s a combination of instruments, banjo guitar, double bass and fiddle, but also the array of vocal mics, with each of the band contributing to the fulsome harmonies, that suggests the making of a dynamic sound. And boy do they deliver? On stage Bonnie acts as both a visual and musical fulcrum around which the rest of the band rotate, readily swapping instruments, with each taking their lead. It makes for a great show and is also something that happily translates very well onto the CD These Changing Skies.
But looks can also be deceptive and both their live set and the CD still pack a surprise, the visual impression of a band that is set up for rootsy-Americana, with perhaps a little indie-edge. Throw in a soupçon of Celtic mist and you’re getting close, but like all really good bands, there’s something indefinable about their sound, which comes from their own unique creative chemistry. On the evidence of both their recent brief UK tour and this CD, Elephant Revival are a sharp witted crew with considerable, musical chops at their disposal. Yet, their sound is just a little askew from what you might take for granted, but in the most delightful way. Perhaps chemistry is the wrong word. It’s an alchemy of sorts, the process more arcane and mysterious, the result more precious.
For example, I mention Bonnie above and to keep my focus on her for another line or two, that she is the percussionist and with her main instrument being the washboard – meaning the wearing of custom built black leather gloves with nickel fingers – is a actually a far more significant factor than it might immediately appear. She’s blessed with a truly distinctive and remarkable voice, with a glorious vibrato, but it’s the subtle variations of metal tipped fingers scarping metal, which offers a fascinating variety of textures to underpin Elephant Revival’s melodic and lyrical invention.
But as above it’s what they do together that defines them. I called them a handsome band and the other players certainly both look the part and deserve their individual credit. On stage, Sage Cook (electric banjo/guitar, acoustic guitar, mandolin, viola, vocals) and Bridget Law (fiddle and vocals), occupy the flanks. In the centre ranks are the taller Daniel Rodriguez (acoustic guitar, electric banjo/guitar vocals) and Dango Rose (double-bass, mandolin, banjo, vocals). Live, the lack of overdubs mean that instruments are regularly traded and the double bass is the most obviously on the move – being the bulkiest instrument to do the rounds.
In one final Bonnie centric moment, however, the band members originate from many parts of the USA and have roots in both Colorado and Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It’s Paine’s hometown, in the foot of the Ozarks with Merle Travis as a famous former resident, although Nederland Colorado is now their given base-camp. Coming together in 2006, joining their talents from various group combinations working in both states, their name was chosen out of empathy for the story of a pair of zoo pachyderms who, upon being separated after 16 years, died on the same day.
A self-titled debut recording was released in 2008 and produced by David Tiller. It was followed in summer 2010 by signing to Ruff Shod Records, and their second CD Break In the Clouds, also produced by Tiller, released in 2010. The It’s Alive EP offered a stop gap in 2012 and while America saw this latest release last year, These Changing Skies is out in the UK today.
If each CD demonstrates a growing sure-footed style, something else that hints at their distinctive sound is the list of bands with whom they’ve shared the bill. It includes the more obvious like Bela Fleck, and Yonder Mountain String Band, with the slightly more exotic John Paul Jones, Devotchka, Little Feat, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, State Radio, String Cheese Incident, Shanti Groove and the positively unexpectedly Michael Franti and even George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Although perhaps given the complex rhythms, those latter names are not as far fetched as they read.
These Changing skies was produced by Ryan Hadlock at Bear creek studios in Seattle. Elephant Revival have highlighted the place as significant and looking at the studio’s website you can see why. The converted barn looks like a beautiful place to be, offering what looks like tranquil isolation, with every facility and comfort you could need. Perhaps it seeps into the sound as their sound, in turn, permeated the air, the atmosphere and the wood of their surroundings. It all sound very organic and natural.
Yet that is also surly in no small part down to a shared philosophy, which to quote from their website involves. “A commitment to responsible stewardship of the planet and its inhabitants, working with organizations such as the Conscious Alliance, Calling All Crows, Trees Water & People, and other nonprofits supporting humanitarian causes.” Although it should be stressed that such concerns are subtly felt and this is no exercise in polemic.
The appeal of These Changing Skies could be summed in the first three songs. There’s the nagging push of Birds And Stars, its bittersweet insistence suddenly dropping to a surging fiddle line, with the cavernous reverb, pattering rhythm and deep wood of the bass, all finding a climax in a flurry of banjo fingers and sweet harmonies. Next up, Remembering A Beginning is hard enough to say, let alone sing, which naturally creates an odd rhythm through the phrasing, with Bonnie’s tremulous smoky voice the perfect instrument to deliver it. The Obvious, belies its title to prove itself anything but, melding hip-hop beats, in their most rural form, to something that takes on the full of a string quartet.
But it doesn’t end there. The Rakers is a killer fiddle tune. Spinning is another chance for their ensemble vocals to wrap around a lilting melody, which offers, “These hearts these dreams these webs we weave.” It also boasts a some beautiful interplay between fiddle and mandolin. On Satisfied, Bonnie sounds almost like Björk and also contributes a ghostly melody with a bowed saw. It’s a real contrast to Willing And Able, another of her compositions, which is no less striking with it’s slinky jazz moves. In between that pair, Down To The Sea has something of a broad brush Mumfords appeal, while the The Pasture is another fine instrumental tune.
In reaching the end Over Over And, hints at a depth of something slightly veiled and leaves a sense of discovery from further plays on the horizon, while Grace Of A Woman contrast with pop hooks and no less noble ideas. Rogue River, however, just voices and percussion, is the clincher in every way, soulful and electrically charged. Like the ultimate plot twist in offers a stunning denouement.
I’m fond of mangling the odd paraphrase, so here goes… If it looks like a good band, plays like a good band and sounds like a good band – its is a good band. Elephant Revival are something quite frankly, a cut above that. In fact, scratch that, as cut above doesn’t cover it! These Changing Skies is a tile that suggests the loftiest of heights and these Elephants are unquestionably looking down from such exalted regions. As I type that, a line of a song echoes from my childhood, “I looked in the sky, where elephants eye was looking at me…” This is not far short of heavenly music.
Review by: Simon Holland