Ellie Come Home | Primary Sources (Emergency Umbrella)

And then the buoyant vocal harmonies kick in, dousing the tune in aching splendor; somewhere, a Belle & Sebastian fan is soiling himself.

 

cd_elliePity the poor band kids. You know, back in high school, the awkward-looking people who carried their violin cases to Spanish class. Sure, they could read sheet music, they knew everything about chromatic scales and Bach and Liszt, but their peers were always more likely to flock to the scraggly guitarist who knew only three chords. Rock was cool; actual musical smarts were not. Ellie Come Home's album Primary Sources marks the moment when the band geeks get their sweet, melodic revenge. Featuring a piano, violin and cello riding atop a traditional rock rhythm section, ECH might not single-handedly make strings "hip" again (who could?), but at the very least, they're going to school the ignorant in the stunning adaptability of classical music.

In rock music, strings have traditionally been a fallback mechanism for songwriters looking to add depth and texture to their compositions—or, when used for evil, a device for bloated schmaltz. On Primary Sources, however, they take center stage, weeping through the ballads and even kicking a bit of ass on the up-tempo numbers. After beginning the album with a five-minute warm up piece, the group dives head on into "Flip the Switch," a song that so effectively summarizes the band's considerable strengths it almost renders the rest of the album moot. It's a breathless sort of head rush that I can only describe as a tweegasm. String players Maura Dunst and Jennifer Johanning pick their spots beautifully, playing counterpoint to singer/pianist Seth Ashley both vocally and instrumentally. The rhythm section struts, discotheque-style, propelling the melody ahead like a pair of afterburners. And then the buoyant vocal harmonies kick in, dousing the tune in aching splendor; somewhere, a Belle & Sebastian fan is soiling himself.

That's not to discount the rest of the tunes collected here. Having listened to them several times at home and once in concert, I'm convinced that these songs could soundtrack the next meditative, coming-of-age independent film. You've got a whimsical pop ballad to play while introducing the story's protagonist and his surroundings ("Premonition"), the devastating weeper for when he finds out that his girlfriend has embraced Scientology ("I Didn't Name You"), and the comforting sense of closure offered by "Circles," for when the young man learns that he's better off without that crazy broad and the credits roll. "This will work for now," sings Ashley in the album's dying moments, bringing the song cycle to a tentative conclusion.

Naturally, the group is still working the kinks out of its game. The ballads have a tendency to sound too drippy, and here ECH's instrumentation becomes something of a liability. Ashley's voice, pleasant yet blandly inoffensive, doesn't help in these settings either. "Coming Down" is the biggest culprit here, laying on the mourning atmosphere to the point where it suffocates the arrangement. But given that it stands out as an exception serves as a testament to the band's restraint and overall good taste. If you aren't afraid for your music to be a bit precious, a bit melodramatic, then seek this disc out. You may never look at school orchestras the same way again. B+

RIYL: The Arcade Fire, The Divine Comedy

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