William Elvin And The Circus Tour – Happy Days Ahead: The Home Recordings – Album Review
I know what you’re thinking…but it’s not like that. Used to be that back in the day, a ‘home recording’ would be the equivalent of a whole bunch of tape-static hissing and sounds bouncing off the walls and overlapping endlessly after a band recorded their stuff live off the floor in the confines of their garage. Don’t make any mistakes here though, William Elvin And The Circus Tour has always been about a pure level of quality in the recordings – and even though this is a nostalgic trip back in time for their music, this isn’t built for your eight-track players. This set of songs from 2010-2011 proves that the imagination, creativity and quality has always existed in this project…and quite honestly, you get to hear the music from a whole different angle with what’s sure to be somewhat of a ‘greatest hits’ of the band from that time period.
The Circus Tour is in full-effect here with five additional players joining Elvin on these recordings. I’m naming names here, because they all do a fantastic job and have stunning moments in the spotlight…the band consists of: Alden Acosta (Guitars, Drums, Percussion), Rigil Borromeo (Guitars), Allen Mamaid (Bass), J Victor Villareal (Keyboards) and Marvin Lorenzo who pops in for the drums on two out of the last three cuts on this album. I’m going to go ahead and point out the obvious, but, after hearing the tenderized, isolated & intimate tunes from William Elvin And The Circus Tour as of late…it’s quite noticeable how much the sound, range and expression in his music expands with a full band supporting. And quite impressive. I’ve always felt like this cat can write a solid tune, there’s no doubt about that…but so much of this set of old-school recordings was so completely surprising to listen to in terms of how much like…ROCK is on here…and just how well-suited Elvin’s writing & sound seem to be in this alternative-side of his musical-persona compared to what I’ve previously heard. This is damn good!
To give you an idea of what I was kind of expecting to hear on this record, William Elvin And The Circus Tour start Happy Days Ahead: The Home Recordings with that familiar tenderness we know and recognize from songs we’ve reviewed here at the page on the opening tune “Mara, The Wonderful One.” You can hear the ambience of the ‘home recording’ element…and even THAT sounds amazing in the mix here…make no mistake, everything you hear has purpose and beautifully adds to the background in behind a beautiful melody to start the album. Heartfelt & sentimental as ever, “Mara, The Wonderful One” gently eases us into the record with the comfortable, invitational and warm sounds that WE & The CT are known to be reliable for. What was immediately impressive to me was just how crystal clear & fresh this sounded in the recording from the background to the forefront, lefts & rights; it’s stunning & sweet & sounds like “Mara, The Wonderful One” could have been recorded yesterday.
And THEN…if you’ve been following along with what I’ve been laying down here…everything changes. “March Of The Groupies” begins with thunderously crunchy guitar & bass riffs, big drums and wild enthusiasm from William Elvin on the mic. I mean…the song’s called “March Of The Groupies” so I guess we can’t blame the guy for getting a little excited right? Seriously though – what a riot this song becomes! That main bass-line that fuels the rhythm driving this song forward is so mighty & meaty – absolutely loved it…guitar solos awesome, keyboard additions are perfection (2:25!!!) and the entire structure of this tune grips and rips the entire time. Elvin ends up sounding real close to the Third Eye Blind sound here, especially in the verse…excellent tone to his voice and the energy is perfect. Big chanting sing-along chorus that could fill a stadium…I mean…based on what I knew and have heard from him so far I was literally blown away! Not even kidding…I keep it up nice & loud for William’s stuff because it usually comes out tender & mild…I had my stereo cranked and then the guy decides to take his amazing band of musical cohorts and just start shredding into the indie/alternative world? WARN a brother William – you almost gave an old guy like me a heart attack!
But I mean…if I gotta go out, that’s probably the best way I could think of doing it. Being genuinely surprised by music or an artist you think you’ve got a read on is one of the greatest gifts in a listening experience…and this was definitely that. “Curtains Fall” is an all-out clever composition…part blues, part alternative, part indie, part pop…lots of inclusions in the mix here. The verse has smart ideas in the approach and effects used, the chorus really delivers with a stunning, complex and rhythmic melody. The tone of the guitars used overtop sound completely awesome as they’re plucked throughout the verse…it’s a rad accent on what already sounds great…the chorus comes out incredibly sincere in its melody-line and the drums in this tune get altogether more & more awesome as it plays on. William even SCREAMS towards the end of this cut…and if I’m being honest, I don’t know if I was EVER expecting to hear this guy let it out like that in a song! So cool to hear where he’s come from on these tunes.
And it’s not just that it’s a departure from what I know that’s making the impact – these songs are just really great songs, pure & simple. “Stray Cat” is like…hmm…okay…I mean, I should PROBABLY put this in my ‘guilty pleasures’ file – but I’m just gonna go ahead and declare, loud & proudly – I LOVE this tune. This appeals to the power-pop-punk crowd…bands that have electrifying energy in the music, fun ideas and beautiful melody combined like Weezer or maybe even like Semisonic do in their best moments. “Stray Cat” has a lot in common with the Weezer crew from the structure & the way the song moves to the way that the both the lead and harmony vocals sound…and you’ll get no complaints from me on that gentlemen. As far as energetic indie-pop ideas go, this is insanely addictive; from the crunch of the guitars to the crisp beat of the snare, the smooth & stylish vocal-flow, ripping bass-lines and gigantic hooks in both verse and chorus – everything I want to hear is right where it should be on “Stray Cat” and what a great song for the summer. It’s sweet, it’s fun, it’s insatiably catchy – another early highlight on Happy Days Ahead: The Home Recordings, “Stray Cat” is universally appealing and bound to snag everyone’s attention.
“One Five” – alright…really cool stuff happening here too as they dial back the energy for a bit for a more sincere moment. First of all, credit to Elvin in the lyrical department, I loved the way he’s got the words wrapping from line to line as he sings this tune and how he’s structured what he’s singing. Second of all, they sound like Superchunk here in the way they’ve got those guitars working in such a beautifully-rubbery sliding style & jangly chords. Dig the subtle electro-style beat that comes with this one, overall “One Five” sounds like it’s got a great grip on the alt-indie sincerity…it’s tough to say whether or not this will connect with people on that first listen coming after the epically vibrant “Stray Cat” – BUT…I think people will certainly come around to this one after a couple listens. “One Five” has a great final moment that gives it additional power in the beat and brings back those amazing rubber-chords on the guitars that sound so awesome and overall this cut is once again doing something different than the rest of what we’ve heard so far. Having a full catalog of tunes to look back on is one thing – having them all coming out in such different forms, styles and sounds like this is entirely another thing altogether…a seriously rad thing mind you – what a memory to look back on & listen to!
“Happy Homesick Blues” I could take or leave. Not a bad tune I suppose, but I’m not a massive fan of the early stuff from The Black Keys either, so they’ll just have to forgive me for this one. I do love a great tone on a guitar though, and they’ve definitely got that going for them on “Happy Homesick Blues.” Of all the cuts on this record this jam sounds the most ‘on the fly’ to me…like a one-shot deal where they were just letting the idea rock out of them organically in a room in the house somewhere. Nothing wrong with that; “Happy Homesick Blues” definitely gives another dimension to the different sounds you’ll hear on this album and from William Elvin And The Circus Tour, and at the very least you have to give this band some real credit for the range of styles & songs they’ve created in the early days.
One of the shortest tunes on the record, “See,” is kind of one of the more interesting cuts on the record when you listen to it. There’s a blending of worlds here…between that natural penchant for William’s songwriting and the more rock-inclined intentions of this group as a whole on this particular record. Revealing a bit of the ‘home recording’ cracks for the first time, “See” has a few issues in the mix for sure between the loud/quiet moments and some peaking in the vocals…but overall, I understand why this idea was one that wasn’t tossed. It’s a deep tune both lyrically and musically…kind of like a version of a K’s Choice tune in the sound of the melody and tone of the mood…it’s got issues in the mix, but I still think the idea is a solid one and the keyboards have some great ideas pitching in here.
A synth-pop melody, “Goodnight, Sheena” is another fantastic idea and brilliant set of vocals flowing through the lyrics of the verse & chorus leading the way. I’m not entirely sure if it’s a filter on this track or a bit of unintended grit in the mix that we hear, but this one’s a bit on the dirty-side for how bright I think we’d all want this melody to become. This is a massively colorful tune and the melody-lines of both the music and vocals are truly extraordinary – in my opinion from a writing & hook standpoint, it’s inarguably one of the strongest tracks on the record. A highlight example of just as much power to the hooks in the music as there are in the vocals – I think William Elvin And The Circus Tour wrote a standout pop-inspired tune with “Goodnight, Sheena,” it just needs a slight clean-up and I think this one would sparkle and shine from every angle. As it stands, it’s still 100% rad to listen to and there’s nothing that can personally stop me from doing just that. Love the backing vocals just past the two-minute mark, the breakdown at the two-thirty mark and the bring-back was perfection…I’m a huge fan of this cut.
“He’s So Hard To Find” sounded like it would be a great final song for the record and immediately put the pressure on the actual final track “Tonight, I Break Some Promises” to rise to the occasion as a result. Kind of similar to something like The Decemberists, “He’s So Hard To Find” is wonderful alt-folk, love the background elements that creep further and further into the mix as we listen and how much those ideas in the atmosphere threaded into the mix tend to make the moment that much more special to hear. Something about the sincerity of the way that William approaches the vocals on this song seems to make all the difference in the world to me here…it just sounds so impressively inviting. A personally reflective, honest and insightful set of lyrics accompanying the gently strummed melody – he’s singing bold, loud & proud about the days gone by. That indescribably connection between a singer and their lyrics can make an insane amount of difference sometimes…songs like this that sound so staggeringly raw and real are really hard to fake; I’m certain this is entirely based on real experiences, real critical internal-examination and real emotion.
“Trialogic” kicks the energy up and the production back into full-swing with a perfect mix and stunning, punchy sound that puts a heavy funk-edge to the rock sound. Really, really smart lyrics on this cut and delivered perfectly by Elvin, amongst the deadly sound of the guitars & bass crunching away…”Trialogic” definitely catches the attention with its flashy movements and clever pace. Big drums from Datar as he steps in behind the throne for a couple tracks back-to-back…the band is sounding super-charged here. “Trialogic” is almost like, progressive blues-rock I suppose…the hooks might not be typical or traditional, but MAN are they there the entire time – it’s like one big hook and the song continues to grip onto you, shake & move ya the entire time. And HOW ABOUT that ending? Like…out of nowhere, William Elvin And The Circus Tour take the final thirty seconds straight into a sound akin to Queen – brilliant!
And a great lead in to the next tune.
It’s not just a song, but a fact – “The Circus Is In Town.” It certainly has been. These players sure showed up on these recordings, there’s no doubt about it…everything has sounded so passionate and proudly played throughout the entire set of recordings. Real love of the craft is a tough, tough thing to hide and I think these guys just knew it wasn’t going to be worth it to try – they sound extraordinarily pumped up and enthusiastic on “The Circus Is In Town.” Another Weezer-esque melody…William’s tone in his vocals gives the song an additional confidence and maturity that comes from a born songwriter and puts in one of his strongest up-tempo performances here. Love the guitars, love the drums, love the vocals and the harmonies…its bright, up-tempo and energetic with really well defined parts that deliver pure entertainment from bar to bar. The ramping-up into the chorus on this cut will fill YOU with energy…the spark of the drums kicking in as the chorus begins and the enhanced catchiness of the melody takes hold completely, putting out an incredibly uplifting energy.
Alright, so, “He’s So Hard To Find” is off the hook, I thought it might have been the perfect ending, but I think they made the right call with the piano-led melody of “Tonight, I Break Some Promises” at the end for sure. If I’m being entirely honest, I’m not sure that a bit of that piano didn’t come out a bit too powerfully when its energy first kicks up, but eventually I think this song settled back in nicely after a stunning and magical sound to its opening. It’s definitely not a ‘happy’ song when you listen closely…but it’s insightfully honest and real. The contrast between the severity of the lyricism and the gentle approach to the melody in the songs first ninety seconds or so is as heartbreaking of a combo as you’ll hear this year. Vocal-melody wise, the hooks in this song’s chorus are absolutely immaculate…they end the record of 2010-2011 highlights with what becomes perhaps the album’s most painful but freeing moments emotionally and finish this collection on the most intimate of notes. “Tonight I Break Some Promises” is beautiful moment in time that could easily bring a tear to your eye and a perfect final expression of love, sweetness & honesty that concludes the album definitively.
An extraordinary experience all-around with this other side to the sound of William Elvin And The Circus Tour – it’s been a serious pleasure to take this trip back down memory lane with them and hear where it all started. These were definitely songs that shouldn’t have been left behind…very good call to put’em all out there on one stunning collection – every song on this album showcased a beautiful new dimension, attitude or side of their style & sound and delivered sincere songwriting, passionate playing & genuine entertainment wall-to-wall.
Find out more about William Elvin And The Circus Tour at the official homepage at: www.williamelvinmusic.com
Join the thousands of bands & artists reviewed at sleepingbagstudios by clicking here!