When news leaked out that Sparrow Records rock band The Elms had been dropped by the label two years ago, no one was surprised.

Though the band released two critically acclaimed albums and an EP, logged more than 500 live dates around the country, scored a couple Dove Award nominations, landed several “hit singles” at Christian radio and managed to grace the cover of CCM, it was obvious that The Elms was an old-school rock & roll band without a single worship song in its repertoire. Despite the critics’ favor and the support of several key industry gatekeepers, The Elms' “best selling” album, "Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll," barely managed to move 30,000 copies.

The reaction in The Elms’ camp to being dropped was far from sullen. “In one sense,” lead vocalist and guitarist Owen Thomas admits, “it was really an enviable experience to be in that position. We felt a real freshness about the whole thing and the opportunity to look for a new place to make music.” Though several other Christian labels immediately offered to sign the band, Thomas, his brother and drummer Chris, lead guitarist Thom Daugherty and bassist Nathan Bennett agreed that it was time to try something new – something risky.

The band kept touring and immediately began writing and recording new songs without the safety net of a label, waiting for a chance to ply its trade outside the confines of the Christian music circuit. Thomas continues, “We decided that there was a cause that we had and a voice that we needed to have that we probably weren’t going to find in formal ‘contemporary Christian music.’” It was time to re-plant The Elms.

It turned out that several mainstream labels had been eye-balling the band from afar, waiting for The Elms’ inevitable release from its Christian market deal with Sparrow. Leaving its previous accolades behind, the band rebuilt from the ground up. After talking to several labels, and demo-ing nearly 40 new songs, the band finally signed with Universal South, which released The Elms’ general market debut, "The Chess Hotel," in early May. Free to use whatever producer, studio and songs it chose and to make exactly the record it wanted to make, the band took a deep breath and dug into the depths of its heartland roots.

Named after a less-than-reputable hotel with hourly rates in The Elms’ hometown of Seymour, Ind., the new collection finds numerous parallels between the burned-out grain silos, dilapidated train cars and abandoned warehouses that scar the landscape of Middle America and the lost, desperate and hopeless souls who inhabit the infamous flophouse. “The songs talk about the realities of being a teenager in these dust-bowl small towns,” Thomas explains. “So many dreams go bad there. People are told that their passions are not practical. Any sense of following your heart is almost considered delusional.”

The slow-burn track “The Towers and the Trains” epitomizes the lyrical vibe of the record perfectly. Pointing out the direct parallels between the people of the town and the aforementioned artifacts of ignominy, Thomas describes both sides as death traps. “They are condemned and useless. The people who never had the ambitions of their hearts nurtured become just like those artifacts. They get old fast and become death traps. They become extremely cynical, worn-out, broken-down, burned-out people. It’s heartbreaking.”