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The Chess Hotel
Artist: The Elms
Label: Universal South Records
Time: 13 tracks / 39:58 min.

With their new CD, The Chess Hotel, The Elms reach their roots deep into the rich soil of American rock, pop and blues to create a defining musical statement. This is back-to-the-basics, no-holds-barred, joyous, painful, in-your-face American music. This is where rock and roll should logically be: infused with the joy and pain of everyday life, fired by the energy of youth, and aching with the raw energy of the blues. Into this mix goes an uncanny ability to create hooks and surprising chord changes that bring the music somehow into the pop category in a way that will conjure up echoes of such classic rock/pop acts as The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles, The Hollies ….and, yet without ever being imitative or overly derivative. This, ladies and gentlemen, is rock and roll in grand, classic form.

The Elms have always put out excellent work, and The Chess Hotel continues that tradition. The music and the message, this time, show a darker side of life and, certainly, a rougher-hewn musical edge that was always there but had been blunted a bit by the production. This time around, producers Owen Thomas and David Bianco (who has worked with Tom Petty, The Posies, Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against The Machine and others…) have produced an album that, essentially, sounds just like The Elms do onstage, unadorned and raw. What you hear, is what you get—and it’s powerful. Here’s the line-up, for the uninitiated: 

The Elms are: Owen Thomas: vocals, guitar, & percussion.
Christopher Thomas (Owen’s brother): drums, percussion, & vocals.
Thomas Dougherty: lead guitar & vocals.
Nathan W. Bennett: bass guitar & vocals.

With the exception of a bit of tasteful Hammond organ on “I Left My Body and Never Came Back,” and the simple but profound, “I’ve Been Wrong,” this basic rock band is what you’ll hear blasting through all 13 tracks.

When you start the CD, hang on to your socks, because “I Am The World” just might rock them right off. This song starts the proceedings with an explosive snare attack that seems to be saying, ’make no mistake—we’re here to play hard.’ This riff-driven ’list song’ has somewhat ambitious designs, taking on the roll of a personified ‘world’ letting us know what we’re in for by being part of the human race. “I am the King, the Czar and The Pope… I’m your finest good deed and your worst dirty jokes ….I’m the now and the never when you’ve got no more time / I’m the dream that is rising in the back of your mind / I’m the sickness and cure—the polluted and pure / Baby, I am the world, and I’m yours,” Owen half shouts / half sings. And then, near the end: “I am the sun and the darkest of nights / I am choice to the left, I am death to the right / I’m the dull of the blues, the sting of the bruise / I am with you for good. I’m the world. I’m the rules.” Yeah, I guess so! Clever word-play, poetic devices and all-around ‘meaty’ lyrics run through all of the songs, which were written by Owen Thomas, with the exception of “She’s Cold,” which was co-written by Thomas and Dougherty.

There’s no let-up in the energy with the second track, which asks the musical question: “Who Puts Rock & Roll in Your Blood?” This funky, rolling blues-rocker features tasty up-front slide guitar work from the amazing Thomas Dougherty, certainly one of the best rock guitarists around today. Throughout the album Dougherty tosses off blistering guitar work that harkens back to the likes of guitar-legend Robin Trower. With a strong understanding of blues, Dougherty’s guitar work swirls in, around, and under these songs—the solos are fiery, tight and inventive, often bringing to mind the best of the guitar players of the classic rock period that started with the British Invasion.: even the tone settings will bring to mind a Beatles or Stones guitar sound. This should be the album that will make people not only take notice of Thom Dougherty, but go back and re-listen to what he played on the previous projects.

The album continues to rock through the energetic, “Nothing to do With Love,” a song about disillusionment and other subjects that plague the discouraged—hiding in the lyric is a message of hope that does have something to do with love ….but, remember, we started with a song about a pretty hard world of rules that would have us think otherwise. This is followed by “Makes Good Sense,” which could’ve been a major pop hit by Badfinger or any number of other bands in the late 60s / early 70s that would’ve had the chops to record it—young love strikes again, Elms style. Continuing in more of a pop vein is “I Left My Body and Never Came Back,” which has trace elements of Dylan and early Larry Norman (for some reason I can hear Norman singing harmony on this). Listen for terrific bass lines by Nathan (really great throughout the album) and the tasteful Hammond organ on the fade.

The next two tracks, “She’s Cold,” and “The Chess Hotel,” begin to reveal the emerging theme of this collection of songs: we’re taking a look at the life of an American town, with its various characters—some noble, some not-so noble, but all very human. “She’s Cold,” is the story of a predator who ‘moves like water ...she bends and she flows, and you’ll drown if you go in too deep,’ but manages to have such a mesmerizing hold that ‘I have a feeling that I will be next in her line to fail.’ This is followed by the title track, “The Chess Hotel,” that offers this tantalizing come-on: ‘In my town there's a piece of Hell… a little dig called The Chess Hotel…’ Owen’s vocal is as appropriately manic as the inhabitants of the hotel, and the fierce guitar break sounds almost scary. The song climaxes with a storm of drums, guitar and bass that must be played LOUD.

“Bring Me Your Tea” is presented in a very spare, old-school acoustic blues format—two guitars, a great vocal, and the hint of bass and other guitar sounds way in the background. At just over a minute-and-a-half, it’s a brief blues interlude, and then back to the rock & roll…..

What do you get when you mix rock, blues, country, pop, and a ‘back-off-boogaloo’ drum intro? You get “The Way I Will,” a song that could probably get The Elms some serious country-rock crossover action. This is your basic, ‘hey—that guy won’t give you what I can give you’ song, done to perfection—very infectious, with a chorus that will pop into your head and camp there most of the day. This song boasts one of the most inventive, celebratory guitar breaks I’ve ever heard—good going, Thom! Next track—meet “The Downtown King,” a self-absorbed bore that just might be ….you or me. Then there’s “Black Peach,” the girl who’s just a bit too fast, who always wanted more, who always needed more, but maybe didn’t get it from home, so….. Looked elsewhere. Almost sweet…. almost.

“The Towers and the Trains,” perhaps the album’s show-piece, is a testament to the people in this ‘anytown, USA’ ..the people who are becoming much like the towers and the trains that they built, work on, and work for: ‘Scars so deep, they’re taught to children / That live with people ‘till the grave …’ Owen sings, and tells us that even the rain sounds like it’s laughing at this town, ‘as it rolls and it slides off the ceilings and the sides / of the towers and the trains….’ This is a haunting song, where each member of the band shines. Nathan’s bass lines are articulate and precise, coming through the mix and grabbing your attention, sounding like living things, slithering through the streets of a city in the rain. Thom’s guitar work is plaintive and passionate, especially on the outro, which might put you in mind of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Chris is powerful on the drums and percussion through the whole album, but really comes through here, left to finish out the song alone, in a cathartic attack of rhythm that would probably be good therapy for some of the gang over at The Chess Hotel. Chris Thomas once again turns in a fine job on the drums—not only is he a rock-solid player, but his fills are deft, economically played, and a pleasure to listen to, as always. The vocals on this track are haunting, and a perfect combination of power and vulnerability, with Owen’s fantastic falsetto near the end, providing just the right touch to give this song a tragic quality. Obviously, Owen, as singer/front man of The Elms, bears a heavy load of responsibility for the successful delivery of these songs, and he’s well up to the task. Owen’s singing is passionate without sounding maudlin or bombastic (a trap many rock singers fall prey to) - he’s got a great rock voice, with range and elasticity. Most of all, Owen is a pleasure to listen to because of the unpretentiousness and sincerity of his delivery.

The CD closes with, “I’ve Been Wrong,” a simple, yet beautiful song about responsibility and compassion.. It’s also about the sudden realization of being wrong, ‘from the beginning.’ The singer sings, ‘I feel about a dollar, like I feel about a daughter ….I’ve been wrong, from the beginning.’ The album begins with a blast of warning about the world, and ends in a confessional moment of realization.

….and this is rock & roll.

By Bert Saraco  5/1/2006

While this disc is recent history for American readers, across the water we have had to wait until this year for its very welcome UK release.
The concept could so easily have come from The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” an image of the late-sixties state itself; only on this release the hotel represents a small mid-western town. So while The Eagles told us that “This could be heaven or this could be hell … You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” The Elms warn,:

                                       You can move on in and be a small town slave / Or you can get out now if you’re feeling brave … 
                                       Get on out of the Chess Hotel / If you escape alive, you’re doing well. 
While the disc as a whole does not tie itself down with this analogy, we do come across inhabitants of the town/ hotel and experience the duality of life there. Thomas introduces us to characters that make us think. We meet the Downtown King, painted vividly as wearing a tie to the store, laughing like a chump, talking like a bore and polishing his shoes to see his own reflection – with the afterword “The reflection is me – oh no!” On “She’s Cold” we meet a girl described as a vulture and a killer, who will attack your will, who moves like water and will drown you if you go too deep. But “She picks and she chews and she’s hungry for news to spread,” so is she just a character or the embodiment of small-town gossip? 
It is in conveying the experience of the inextricably linked good and the bad that Owen Thomas’ lyrics prove so eloquent. Right from the beginning in “I am the World” we get his wheat-and-weeds understanding of life: 
                                       I am the trust that you give and the honor you lose / 
                                       I‘m the future you change every moment you choose … 
                                       I’m the sickness and cure, I’m polluted and pure/ 
                                       Baby, I am the world, and I’m yours!”
The disc’s tone captures this well, particularly when compared with the more melodic and upbeat previous release, Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, where some of the tracks took you high with celebration and the extra layer of polish gave the feel-good effect. Here, the feel is far rawer, ranging from sounds that would have fitted right into the last disc to moments where Thomas’s vocals are a complete mix of talk, singing, harmony and rap. But there are some carefully-placed moments of calm, such as the acoustic block inserted dramatically into the electric stomp of “Who Puts Rock & Roll in Your Blood?” and the 102 second acoustic track “Bring Me Your tea.” There is remarkable range of light and shade for such a basic rock line-up. 
Plenty of highlights are peppered about: the many hooks; the teamwork in “Makes Good Sense” of some prominent, riffy bass with a distinctive opening lick; the shadowy, funky edge to the evocative “Towers and the Trains,” which also features some yearning Norman Barrett-like lead work; the melodic sense embedded in tracks like “Black Peach.” My personal highlights also include the pearls of biblically-informed wisdom that are just as evenly spread throughout the disc: “You spent all your youth crying, ’More, more, more.’ And now you wanna know what living’s for?” The more you listen to this disc, the more the gems start to sparkle. 
Derek Walker  10/26/2008



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