Sounds like … classic '60s and '70s rock and roll, incorporating the sounds of bands such as Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Who, The Byrds, and Cheap TrickAt a Glance … there's not quite as much to grab onto lyrically this time, but The Elms have really gelled together as a band on this otherwise fine rock album.
About a year and a half ago, we enthusiastically reviewed an up and coming Midwestern band by the name of The Elms. Little did anyone know how far they'd come in the time since. The band was showered with acclaim, and received two significant Dove nominations. They gained a lot of exposure through the prestigious Festival Con Dios tour in 2001, which led to a prominent mention in the Newsweek cover story about the event. In late summer of 2002, The Elms were invited to open for the legendary '70s pop/rock artist Peter Frampton for two months worth of concerts. Now The Elms are opening for Jars of Clay on their fall tour, as well matched a pair of bands as I've ever heard. So why didn't The Big Surprise amass more of an audience? As best as I can guess, I think the band's one significant single off the album, the Bay City Rollers' inspired "Hey Hey," was as reviled as it was revered – some people disliked the cheerleading stomp and the lacking lyrical substance. It's unfortunate so many people failed to recognize the song as a playful nod to the catchy Beatlesque rock of the late '60s and early '70s, thereby missing out on an excellent retro rock album from a band that makes a fine successor to the legacy left by PFR
Nevertheless, The Elms earned enough acclaim from critics and audiences to keep them afloat, and after a busy touring schedule through most of 2001 and 2002, The Elms are back to rock the house with their sophomore effort, Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll. The title refers to the three most important things to the band: the truth of the Gospel, our individual spiritual core (also the unique personalities of rock music's most beloved artists and the way they connect with audiences), and of course the music they love to play. The same cast of characters who brought you The Big Surprise has reunited for the new album, this time improving upon their individual talents and their collective sound as a band. Owen Thomas always has been a confident lead vocalist and guitarist, but his childhood friend Thom Daugherty distinguishes himself even more as a lead guitarist on this album – you'll swear you're listening to George Harrison at times. The rhythm section of Keith Miller on bass and Owen's brother Chris on drums sounds much stronger as they attempt more elaborate and rhythmic fills. Guitar master Brent Milligan once again sits in the producer's chair, shaping the band's sound. If anything, The Elms have embraced even more of a classic guitar rock style than on The Big Surprise, which blended the classic sound with modern rock. The addition of a trio of female backing vocalists ("The TSR&R Vocals") adds a new soulful dimension, reminiscent of old recordings by Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, and Pink Floyd.
So just how classic does Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll sound? You'll hear it instantly with the rocking opening track and first single, "Speaking in Tongues." The beginning guitar chords are remarkably similar to the Beatlesque bands of the '60s and '70s, such as Badfinger, The Raspberries, and Cheap Trick, as well as legendary acts The Who and The Rolling Stones. The title of the song doesn't refer to the Spirit speaking through us, but rather to how we sin with the words we use instead of speaking the truth in love. I said The Elms now sound like Beatlesque bands because their sound on Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll is a little less directly influenced by The Beatles – it sounds more like they're mimicking a specific style and snapshot in rock history, as opposed to a specific band or two. That said, there are some songs that do bear a strong likeness to the Fab Four. "The First Day" is a PFR-sounding ballad that features a very George Harrison like solo (reminiscent of "Something"). Meanwhile, tracks such as "Burn and Shine," "Let Love In," and "Through the Night" sound more like the jangle rock of The Byrds or Daniel Amos. Fun rockers such as "All the While Having Fun!" and "You Got No Room to Talk!" resemble The Kinks and The Raspberries. (No, I can't explain Owen's regular use of exclamation points in his titles.)
Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll is a fun rock album, but I had a frustrating time trying to figure out why I like it less than The Big Surprise. I think the answer lies in Owen's songwriting, which is still generally strong, but the lyrics lack the punch and wit of the previous album. Ironically, I'd equate the depth and quality of the lyrics on this album with that of "Hey Hey" – catchy but vague wording with not a lot to digest. "All the While Having Fun!" has only five lines of lyrics, with "Not in rock and roll did I find my soul!" summing up the song. I appreciate that Owen writes to reach a broader audience and to get a foot in the door with the lost, but he did it much more effectively with The Big Surprise on songs such as "The Buzzing Won't Stop!" and "A Minute to Ourselves."
Not that this new album is without its moments. "You Saved Me" is a song of salvation inspired by the band's serious auto accident back in early 2002: "Down through the ages, I've been stuck in cages / giving up before I'm down / When all my ambition became my religion / still I knew you were around." The enjoyable McCartney-esque acoustic ditty "Go Toward the Glow" cleverly observes our need for God while using clichéd pop song lyrics to great effect: "I would be what I should be to be Your baby / I would be what I should be to see You smile." The extremely catchy "Happiness" is strong in every way, asking for the Lord's light to shine through all we do to reach the lost: "Show me the light that You promised / Happiness comes through despair / Make it so bright You kill the darkness everywhere." Both "Smile at Life Again" and "Burn and Shine" have beautiful melodies and inspiring messages, but my favorite is probably "The First Day," a hopeful ballad about starting over with new life in Christ: "Raise the glass and look right past the time you've thrown away / The tragedies and enemies, the debts you'll never pay / Understand it's in your hand to turn the other way / And make tomorrow the first day."
The Elms handle the classic rock sound really well, but I'd love to see them try to blend it with modern rock again, if they're willing; Crowded House, Jellyfish, PFR, and Oasis accomplished that to spectacular effect. Brent Milligan has done an excellent job with these guys, but I'm curious how The Elms would interact with a more creative producer such as Brent Bourgeois. It might help them become a little more experimental while retaining their Beatle-esque style. As mentioned earlier, I love this band as a strong alternative to PFR (now that they're retired again). This is one truly cross-inspired and cross-generational rock band that plans to be in the music business for the long haul, and they show every sign of accomplishing that between The Big Surprise and Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll.