- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
I know a lot of people are going to use a similar play on words regarding the new album from The Elms, but there's just no avoiding it—this album wins the award for most appropriately titled project of the year. No one's expectations for this band could have possibly matched the results. Big Surprise is that excellent.
Not that we all had low expectations of The Elms. Their debut EP last summer was actually pretty good, featuring five catchy alternative rock songs that sounded like Matchbox 20 or All Star United. The EP was designed to create interest in their new album, which was slated to release last fall. The album never came, and like most Christian music listeners, I forgot all about it. Now their debut is finally here, and the reason for the delay is apparent after one listen. Songwriter Owen Thomas (vocals, guitars, keyboards) has been busy with his brother Chris (drums), their childhood friend Thom Daugherty (guitar), Keith Miller (bass), and producer Brent Milligan in crafting an excellent neo-classic rock album. I doubt anyone expected the British invasion would strike America again … from Indiana of all places (where most of the band hails from).
Big Surprise is packed with melodic power-pop that draws from a variety of influences from the last thirty years—and they do so with enough skill to make this music their own. The album's lead single "Hey, Hey" is pure ear candy, with its infectious and catchy Bay City Rollers rock sound. Brimming with encouragement, it matches its happy rock with the message that salvation is readily and freely available to all who want it. The next likely radio single will be the rock ballad "Here's My Hand," whose title refers to a desire to serve the Lord. Likewise, the rocking "A Minute to Ourselves" sounds like the title to a love song, but is really about finding peace by taking the time to listen to God.
"Who Got the Meaning" is a solid rocker about keeping God—rather than the things this world says are important—at the center of our lives, and "The Buzzing Won't Stop!" is a beautiful song about the guilt we feel when we knowingly displease God. It sounds like Radiohead at their most melodic, complete with Thom Yorke-sounding falsetto vocals by Owen. Amidst all the great songs on this album is the brilliant title track, a dark and slow pop/rock song filled with haunting strings and elegant British rock bombast. Lyrically, the song tackles the subject of how we think all our good works go unnoticed—and it has the same sarcastic wit of Steve Taylor or Ian Eskelin (All Star United).
Struggling to find a complaint about Big Surprise, I'll admit the album leaves me wanting for more since three of the ten songs were on last year's five-song EP. However, the "older" songs are given new life on Big Surprise. "You're Glowing" has a pleasant Beatles-influenced pop feel, complete with a soft horn interlude in the middle. Last year's single, "Lifeboat," kicks up the guitars louder here, giving it a more modern and edgy sound (not far off from the band Lifehouse). Likewise, the album's closer, "Real Men Cry" (about modeling our lives after the humility and servitude of Christ), is more elaborately arranged here, and the combination of Owen's voice and melody with the piano and strings evokes a Ben Folds Five-like sound.
Surely not everyone will embrace this album as much I have (admittedly, the band seems to share the same influences as I), but I can't imagine anyone disliking The Elms either. Owen Thomas is a remarkable young songwriter with a lot to say about the contrast between living according to the demands of the world and Christ's pattern, and he says it all with simple thoughtfulness and creativity. He also has a gift for hook-filled melodies. I honestly think he may prove himself to become Christian music's answer to Paul McCartney and John Lennon (all in one) over time. A rocking and melodic album, there's something for all ages here—whether you're a fan of Radiohead and Oasis, XTC and Jellyfish, Cheap Trick and Badfinger, or yes, even The Beatles. The point is not that The Elms merely sounds like these bands, but that they're almost as good. I've already listened to the upcoming album from the formerly disbanded Christian band PFR, one of this year's most anticipated releases and the most obvious comparison I could make to The Elms. Though I do like PFR's new album, it feels a little routine—PFR as usual. The new Elms album is actually much better in my opinion, and that's the big surprise for Christian music this year.