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August 2001 Pick of the Month

Big Surprise
Artist: The Elms
Label: Sparrow Records
Length: 10 tracks

There has been a lot of buzz about this album, with everyone talking about the infectious, intelligent pop of The Elms.  Unfortunately, the disc does not live up to those expectations. 

The big surprise with "Big Surprise" is that it comes off like the latest in a long list of "Hey, look, I signed to a major CCM label" releases.  Most of the buzz I have heard comes from their indie days, but now that the band is on Sparrow Records, it seems as though they are trying hard to make the most least-common-denominator music and fit in with everything else out there on the top forty front.  Their blending of British and American pop is nothing new, and just isn't very compelling.  Sure, there is a lot of foot tapping, happy tunes here, but that's about it.  Kinda like the Monkees meet the Beach Boys meet the Brill Building songwriting machine, and not really pulling any of it off.

Ken Mueller 5/26/2001

Despite the relative youth of its members, The Elms are hardly newcomers to the pop/rock scene.  Founded in 1996 by siblings Owen and Chris Thomas, the band, then known as Just Visiting, spent several months playing concerts and festivals before entering the studio to record their first independent album, Gardenshow.  The group's second indie album, Just Visiting, followed in 1998.  After changing its name to The Elms, the band landed a major label deal with Sparrow Records and released a five-song EP in 2000.  The self-titled effort earned favorable reviews and was commercially successful as well, placing the single "Lifeboat" into the middle reaches of the Top 20.

The group's latest effort, The Big Surprise, combines seven new songs with three tracks from the EP.  Like the EP, Surprise continues the group's exploration of classic '60s and early '70s pop/rock.  The lively lead off track, "Hey, Hey," leaps out of the starting gate with an infectious joy that is equal parts Bay City Rollers and a high school pep rally. "Lifeboat" and "Who Got the Meaning?" are similarly exuberant numbers whose driving rhythms and eminently hummable melody lines are the hallmarks of any well-written power pop composition.  The band handles the softer side of the musical coin with equal aplomb.  "Here's My Hand" is a lushly textured composition whose simplicity winds up being its main strength.  The exaggerated orchestral flourishes of the title track, on the other hand, recall the semi-quirky combination of pop and classical styles of ELO's finest mid-'70s works.  And the earnest vocals and spirited cello work of  "You Get Me Every Time" instill the best-of-album track with a mood that mirrors both the poignancy of "Eleanor Rigby" and the thoughtful melancholy of the Beach Boys' "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times."

Despite their proficient navigation of the pop/rock terrain, the band does manage a wrong turn now and then.  Owen Thomas' vocals are occasionally strained on the upper register of songs like the modern rock-influenced "A Minute to Ourselves."  And the semi-shrill falsetto delivery on the otherwise mellow "The Buzzing Won't Stop!" is mostly ill-conceived. Lyrically, too, a small handful of the songs, such as "You're Glowing" (If you're down the tracks/ I'll ride the train/ If you're in the sky/ I'll fly a plane), opt for formula over inventiveness.  That said, though, the group's miscues, both lyrically and vocally, are decidedly few and far between.  To be sure, the majority of the album's songs, like "The Big Surprise" (I'm your hand grenade and your lemonade/ 'Cause I'll blow up and leave you sour), paint remarkably vivid word pictures of relational distress.  And entries such as "You Get Me Every Time" (I can see a hundred miles away/ But I can't see what's right before my eyes/ And when I'm through trying to be brave/ Then I realize that all my courage dies) display extraordinary insight for a group whose members have yet to reach their mid-twenties.  Likewise, it is Owen's energetic and ardent vocalizing that is perhaps the key factor in endowing the album with its distinctively high-spirited and heartfelt quality.  All said and done, "The Big Surprise" ranks as an eminently solid and enjoyable slice of Christian power pop and offers up ample proof that the Elms have indeed made good on the talent promised by their debut EP.

Bert Gangl 6/4/2001

It takes a special kind of music to be truly fun.  This release from The Elms is that kind of music.  It's summer music, the kind of stuff you put  on at a backyard barbecue or a day at the beach throwing a frisbee around.  Its fun! 

The opening track "Hey Hey" is a nice start with its mix of Euro-pop/rock and horns.  It is a nice summer sound which would make the perfect addition to a summer soundtrack.  The second track, "Here's My Hand", talks about reaching out to God for help. The chorus is a prayer for God to help us stand.  Here's my hand 

    Here's my hand 
    You told me I was good enough 
    To stand 
    Here's my hand 
The title track "The Big Surprise" is a bit of an ode to an under appreciated friend.  With the singer going through what he has done to try and impress his friend, with all his efforts going unnoticed. 
    I worked extra hard 
    To pick your birthday card 
    You just threw it out 
    And kept my money 

    I got up at six 
    To make your favorite dish 
    So I sank when you said 
    You weren't hungry 

    Filed your tax return 
    Let some candles burn 
    Played Mozart 
    To make your plants grow 
    Then I clipped the trees 
    Got down on my knees 
    Not to work 
    Just to pray you'd see me... 

The album is not a ground breaking work.  But I wasn't expecting it to be.  It is an enjoyable album that fits nicely into a shuffle rotation or on its own. 

Aaron Bell 7/7/2001 

Indiana quartet, The Elms, have the potential to be Christian rock's next big thing.  With a style formerly dubbed "power pop," the band's debut album The Big Surprise captures nuances of well-known groups like PFR, The Waiting, Cheap Trick and The Replacements, while still managing to sneak in a distinctive sound sure to identify them.  This is a band that will be all over Christian radio this summer. 

The album opens with the track "Hey Hey", with a cheerleader type chant opening the song.  This is an infectious, guitar-driven number that sticks with you, while it reminds us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, while still having fun in our lives. 

    hey hey guys, hey hey guys 
     what's the prize? 
     If you want it... 
    Hey hey girls, hey hey girls 
    What's the world got to offer?
"The Buzzing Won't Stop!" sounds like a Replacements tune, if that band had been fronted by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. "Who's Got the Meaning?" is another offering that Paul Westerberg would be proud to call his own. 

Owen Thomas' vocals sound like a more polished version of Mark Robertson (A Ragamuffin Band).  This is especially evident of songs such as "The Buzzing Won't Stop" and "A Minute to Ourselves".   "You Get Me Every Time" could be the next single for The Waiting, which isn't surprising, considering that Producer Brent Milligan has worked with both bands. 

"Lifeboat" speaks of our need to rely on God in tough times: 

    When I am scared, you are my Father. 
    When I can't breathe, you are the air 
    When I can't swim, you are the lifeboat 
    When I'm tired and weary, You are there.

"You're Glowing" is reminiscent of Material Issue, or Cheap Trick.  The influences on this album are numerous, but that doesn't take away from the presentation here: this is a great beginning for a young band that has the    otential to entertain and minister to us for years to come. 

Ironically, the title track seems to be the weakest here.  To my ears, it's overdone musically, and the bombast drowns out the lyrics, leaving them lost in the mix. 

With this album, and PFR's upcoming release, 2001 should be an exciting summer for those who enjoy songs you can sing along to with the windows down on a summer afternoon. 

Brian A. Smith 7/17/2001

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