Depending on whom you ask they might say, "In order to make great music you have to be edgy and artsy." Unfortunately, in the attempts to find something new under the sun, old hat is cast aside and forgotten until someone comes along and reminds you what your foundations are. Like a tree waiting for spring, this is The Elms season. On The Elms EP we were introduced to a young band from Indiana who had potential to do great things in due time. This time around, Owen's new vocal explorations, lyrical quality and musical aggressiveness have found some room on The Chess Hotel. And for many bands who have tried, The Elms have succeeded where many have fallen; to capture the raw stage sound of a show on digital format. The Big Surprise and Truth, Soul, Rock And Roll all had glimmers of what this quartet from Indiana was capable of if it were unleashed, and the band's Burn the Fields DVD showed us what they could do in a live setting beyond the confines of a studio recording.
Many years after The Elms leave the scene, The Chess Hotel might be the album that defines their legacy. Every band has had one or two albums that they are most well known for. DC Talk's Jesus Freak and Audio Adrenaline's Lift come to mind. This album varies so much from their previous albums in many aspects to the point where they almost seem like an entirely different band. The fact that almost every song could very easily be a single on their other records, but still retains that re-playability, makes this album a great, fun, old fashioned rock-and-roll album.
"I Am the World," a pleasant surprise, opens the album immediately with some catchy bass and drums and Owens vocals are noticeably much more confident this time around than on previous projects. There is also a distinct difference with Thom's guitar riffs and solos that seem to never die throughout the album's thirteen tracks. "Who Puts Rock and Roll in Your Blood" sets the tone even more that the listener is about to hear a rock album, and that the first track wasn't just to draw you in. "Nothing To Do With Love" follows in its steps to "Makes Good Sense," a song reminiscent of something off of Truth, Soul... Owen's vocals style is in the same vein as a slower paced song from their past, but remains strong while having that great tonal quality about it that shows how much more confident he has become. "I Left My Body And Never Came Back" is a catchy southern rock acoustic track that leads into "She's Cold!" with it's infectious opening guitar hook. While it's not the opening song on the album, I could see why The Elms decided to move it midway through the album's track listing. With a large selection of rock songs, it's refreshing to not hear the album open with "She's Cold." The Elms' other songs are equally as good and it's refreshing to not have one of the first singles be the anchor for the entire album. "The Chess Hotel," an even more aggressive track, follows but just where Zeppelin excelled in changing paces mid song, The Elms slow it down just in time for "Bring Me Your Tea;" a short acoustic southern rock track similar to a CCR or a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club offering. While the album does display its classic rock roots, The Elms can't be pigeon-holed as sounding as any one artist in particular, unlike some other modern rock bands. Remember, The Elms have been doing this for nearly ten years when they still independent under the name Just Visiting.
"The Way I Will" is another throwback to their earlier recordings with an infusion of the new agressiveness they've found. While it's wholly a relationship song, parts of it can be taken almost as a song from God about Him never leaving and always being there. This is as spiritual as they get until "I've Been Wrong," a convicting acoustic track that closes out the album. While not heavy in spiritual aspects, there is great imagery in the lyrics as evident on "The Towers and The Trains." What cannot be over looked is that it's perfectly fine to have a fun rock album that doesn't deal with heavy topics and that is what The Elms have done. "The Downtown King" follows "The Way I Will" with its great vocal cadence and "Black Peach," a song heard first recorded on Burn The Fields, rounds out the end of the album before "The Towers and The Trains" and "I've Been Wrong."
With The Chess Hotel, The Elms have offered up an album that doesn't get old from beginning to end. Like some albums that start winding down after the sixth or seventh track, this record doesn't stop. With a few of their songs having been available to listen to online for quite some time, never do they make the album rely solely on those songs. The Elms have done everything right on The Chess Hotel, from Owen's falsettos and the perfect harmonies, never overdone, to Thom's authoritative guitar solos. Upon first listening to the latter, they seem overshadowing of the other members, but further listening brings other excellent aspects, like Nathan's bass lines and Chris' drum beats. Perhaps the most impressive aspect is Owen's songwriting and vocals. Having penned every track and hearing the growth in his voice makes me long for a supposed second disc of acoustic songs that was rumored to be packaged with the album. The Elms have proven that you don't need to be overly artistic to be creative and write great music. This is a must buy for any rock and roll enthusiast who wishes to see old hat make a comeback.- Review date: 4/28/06, written by Kevin Chamberlin
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