Elk – Tamarack Mansion (Rust Belt, 2009)
Elk is a five-piece from Minneapolis (not to be confused with the like-named 4-piece from Philadelphia) fronted by former Bellwether vocalist Eric Luoma. Here he brings along his former band’s fetching melodies while leaving behind its overt Country and Americana influences, and he reverses the acoustic approach of their last album, Home Late. There are still fleeting moments of twang in Elk’s foundation, but they’re more of a psych- and soul-tinged pop band in the vein of mid-period Beatles, Zombies, Meddle-era Pink Floyd and Big Star’s first two albums. Luoma’s languid double-tracked vocals on “Storm of the Century” sound a bit like the Morning Benders’ Chris Chu, but the combination of crystalline guitars, banjo and moments of steel are late-60s California production rather than pop-punk.
There’s a bounciness in the bass and drums that suggests the optimism that early-70s AM pop provided after late-60s psych and heavy rock overdosed. It’s like waking up on a sunny day after a long night of partying – you can still feel the drugs hanging on with its fingertips, but the bright light pulls you forward as the fog recedes. Elk does a magnificent job of creating this feeling in slow tempos, not-quite-awake vocals, gentle layers of organ and piano, drifting guitars and keening steel, shuffling drums, touches of vibraphone and ringing oscillators. That semiconscious state is exemplified in the album’s opener “Daydreams” as Luoma wrestles with his physical and spiritual drowsiness. In “Storm of the Century” the song ends with a heavy string arrangement and sliding guitar notes lightened by banjo and brought to daylight with the subliminal chirping of a bird.
The band shifts textures throughout the album and in multipart songs ala Brian Wilson. “Palisades” opens as an old-timey music hall tune before transitioning into a David Gilmour-styled vocal against a Mellotron-like backing. The processed voice returns in contrast with the neo-psych background, alternating with lush vocals that bound across the stereo stage. In between several of the songs one can hear faint music and ocean sounds as if the listener is on some misty yesteryear boardwalk; “Over the Pines” doesn’t so much end as it recedes into the waves. The band’s upbeat songs include the instantly hummable “Galaxy 12,” a meditation on a Smith-Corona typewriter’s inability to provoke a response from a correspondent or romantic interest; the song’s hook will have you singing along by the second time around.
The bouncy “I Don’t Want the Lies” has a melody the Paley Brothers might have cooked up in thinking about ‘60s pop bands like the Five Americans or Cyrkle. Luoma’s vocals and the multipart production invoke the West Coast production of Curt Boettcher. Tamarack Mansion will remind you of many things, but leaving you feeling that it sounds exactly like none of them. The neo-psych instrumentation is brightened by melodies that are both pop and country, and the touches of steel and banjo would more directly suggest Americana if they weren’t so radically recontextualized. It’s a truly fetching combination of melodies, moods and motifs that evokes and intertwines earlier bands and eras without copying them.