The Montclair-based art-pop band Elk City has made another engaging and evocative album, Above the Water. With a vibrant, varied sound, the album benefits from powerful guitar riffs, a consistently pleasing beat, and Renée LoBue’s elegant and ethereal vocals.
The album’s songs focus on soul searching and, as LoBue said in press materials, “living on the outer edges of what it means to explore oneself.”
“For me, inspiration comes from unknown places — I never stop to question my motives when creating,” said drummer/producer Ray Ketchem. “I follow where the song is leading me.”
Joining Ketchem and LoBue in the band are bassist Richard Baluyut of Versus, and guitarists Sean Eden of Luna and Chris Robertson of the Psychedelic Furs’ side project, Feed. The fresh sounds were motivated by, Baluyut said, the desire “to travel to fractured worlds.
“One of us would bring in little bits, little parts, then have everybody write something on the spot … it was witnessing the band being inspired by each other in the moment and capturing that.”
Eden has been Elk City’s guitarist since 2007, when the group released its album New Believers, and his virtuosity is prominently on display on Above the Water.
“Sean is an incredibly creative musician and songwriter,” said Ketchem. “His guitar sound and style are intensely unique. No one sounds like him.”
Renée’s unconventional and abstract lyrics are elevated by danceable sonic threads of psychedelic rock and atmospheric pop; the band weaves its improvisations into a satisfying tapestry.
Recorded in Ketchem’s inspiring space, Magic Door Recording studio in Montclair, Above the Water will be released on Oct. 21 on Magic Door Records. The label was created by LoBue, Ketchem and Guided by Voices drummer Kevin March, all neighbors in Montclair with a shared mission to release music by artists in their community.
The songs flowed from Elk City’s improvisations in his studio and emerged with an experimental feel by design. “I record everything when we are playing music together,” said Ketchem. “Renée has the unique ability to write vocal melodies and lyrics in the moment. All the members of the band react to what they’re hearing, much like a spoken conversation. We approach these jam sessions with no preconceived ideas of what might transpire. From there we carefully listen through to what we’ve done and edit, arrange.”
“I write 90 percent of the lyrics and melodies. I improvise with the band during live studio jams,” said LoBue.
“That Someone” (watch video below) is a dreamy track that captures a haunting moment of alienation, with an electrifying guitar riff to draw in the listener. LoBue’s delicate and clever lyrics resonate for those of us who have searched for a charged connection but also have hidden from others. LoBue sings:
Flying overhead when I didn’t have a plane
I knew just enough
I did not go insane
I went so high, lost my soul
I went so high, lost my cell phone
Oh, here comes that someone.
“It’s a double entendre song about the ecstasies and horrors of seeing someone around town,” LoBue said. “We’ve all had the experience — hoping you don’t see someone around and then you do and it’s cringe-y. Conversely, seeing someone you’re hoping to run into — it’s joyful.”
“Your Time Doesn’t Exist” (watch video below) has a hypnotic, jangly pop melody, and reminds me of The Feelies. LoBue’s singing and Ketchem’s drumming moves the song forward, inviting us to follow LoBue’s ruminations that “time is just a construct/time is never ending, full of love” and “your time doesn’t exist.”
I can’t imagine sitting for this buoyant song when played live.
“Someone’s Party” conjures up those nervous and excited feelings we experience at a party where people are hanging in corners and posturing, and where encounters often go nowhere.
LoBue sings, “Someone’s party we meet again/I was invited/You’re not excited/Maybe we’ll talk in the back yard but then you left/We’ll try another time/Can you capture in your mind a little taste of time/How you capture my name/Maybe we’ll find each other again.”
The song was “largely inspired by the movie ‘La Notte’ (‘The Night’) — one of my favorite films by Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni,” said LoBue. “Made in 1962 and beautifully slow-moving. Most of the movie takes place at a large party in a sprawling mansion on the outskirts of Milan. I took my love for the film and gave it a modern spin about being at a house party while tying in the theme of missed connections.
“There are bands playing. You’re in the yard. They’re by the keg. You’re waiting to use the bathroom. They’re engrossed in a conversation. Those funny little nuances we’ve all felt about being at someone’s party. It’s important to mention the dreamy quality of the song is a nod to the very last scene in ‘La Notte’: 5 o’clock in the morning outside the sprawling house where the party energy lingers from the night before.”
The well-crafted, catchy “Apology Song” offers a refreshing and sometimes difficult-to-deliver apology. Even the backing vocals are beautiful.
“We thought this one was done when we realized it needed another part,” said LoBue. “We started tooling around with a chorus and I came up with, ‘I’m sorry/I did it/I got all caught in my head/I’m sorry/You know it/My head got caught up in that thing.’ It can be hard to apologize. It’s a song of deep admission. An apology is a letting go. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Collaboration is the thread that connects Elk City’s songs. All band members write the music together. “I usually have an idea of what I think the song should sound like, as we are writing it,” said Ketchem. “I believe songs have their own life. The song will guide your way to help you create them — finish them. You have to use your instincts to follow and don’t fear unforeseen direction.
“Renée and I have led Elk City since 1999. Our members respect the history of the band while also bringing their own influences and personalities into the fold.
“We rehearse at Magic Door and take advantage of the recording possibilities. We’re all friends, so we spend time hanging around, eating meals and enjoying each other’s company while working on the music.”
Ketchem, who is also a commercial illustrator, brings this sensitivity to his work when recording other artists at the Montclair studio, establishing an open vibe for creativity. His client roster is diverse, including nationally known indie bands (Luna, Guided by Voices), New Jersey bands (The Karyn Kuhl Band, The Fond Farewells, Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help), NRBQ and others.
I wondered if making music has changed over the years for him.
“The way we write and record music has not changed,” he said. “But technology has made capturing and archiving our writing sessions easier. All the while, the way music is delivered, distributed and consumed has changed drastically. And social media has altered the way music is marketed and sold in ways we are constantly trying to keep up with.”
Now that live music has returned after vanishing almost completely during the early part of the pandemic, I wondered if Ketchem and LoBue feel hopeful about the future for artists.
“I’m feeling optimistic about creating music and art,” LoBue said. “I’m forever optimistic about the energy in the moment of creation. A lot of artists feel defeated. Taking the focus off the joy of creating can do that. Especially the way art is quantified on social media today! The joy, the energy of creating is key. I’m optimistic about that. I’m also feeling optimistic about the pandemic receding.
“What the pandemic has taught us is that there’s no substitute for human connection.”
“I’m a generally optimistic person, but we’ve been through a rough period together,” said Ketchem. “I feel like we are finally on the other side of the pandemic and life can start to take new shapes again.”
Elk City will perform an acoustic set at the Porchistas Home Studio in Montclair, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m., along with The Porchistas and Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help. Visit: eventbrite.com.
For more on the band, visit elkcity.bandcamp.com.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.