Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band – Guiding Star – Album Review
They always say that a great band name should catch your attention. Consider that mission accomplished.
If I were to hazard a guess pre-listening, I’d suspect from the name Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band that we’re likely in for a psychedelic-pop-indie experience of some kind. Digging into the social media – I couldn’t help but crack a wide grin reading the listed influences, which certainly seemed to confirm that whatever I was about to be in for, wasn’t going to be any kind of ‘normal’ experience. Check this out – it’s honest, real, and rad AF to read…this is a list of what influences the sound of this band from Colorado: ‘all the usual suspects, dylan, the stones, the beatles, the who, captain kirk and mr. spock, donovan, mellow yellow, rootbeer floats, punk,mods, glam rock, new wave , old wave, singer-songwriters, indies, the jam, the clash, motown, bakersfield sound, the byrds, beach boys, harmonies, melodies etc.’ It had me at ‘all the usual suspects’ lol – that’s remarkably concise and to the point.
There’s also one other small tidbit that led me to believe this experience wouldn’t be exactly point-A to point-B…it’s not all that often that you read a band name like Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band only to find out that it’s actually a solo-project. That’s almost like, the band-name equivalent of referring to yourself in the third-person isn’t it? Definitely not what you’d be expecting to find – but then, as you push play and listen to the songs of Guiding Star, you’ll realize not much is typical here.
Alright. So now that I’ve gone and blown the lid off this not-so-secret fact, let’s introduce ya – the man responsible for what I’m assuming is all of what you hear, is Dave Arvizu – aka, Rvzoo. At the very least, the dude handles the ‘Guitar, Lead Vocals, Singer-Songwriter, Keyboard, Ukulele and the Kitchen Sink’ according to the write-up on his pages. After listening to Guiding Star and realizing that this is the result of the creativity, thoughts, effort, & skills of one man…I gotta say…this is more than commendable. Dave not only proves to be extraordinarily capable in terms of composition, but he really hasn’t shied away from getting uber-involved in the amount of ingredients that create the core of the songs he writes. As in, he can take you from a simple acoustic melody and into something much more involved, whether it’s through additional instruments, clever layering, or smart transitions in the writing. While the melodic essence remains the constant in the songwriting on this new record – I think what’s equally impressive is the range of ideas that Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band put on display. You can hear that an easy pop song would be no problemo at all for this guy – and what I appreciate most about this record is that Rvzoo has made sure that nothing comes out straight-ahead; there’s perspective, imagination, & vision in this music that creates an experience you’ll have zero qualms about repeating.
So for those looking for something a little different – buckle-up & strap-in, push play and get ready to trip & chill with Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band. And don’t be afraid to admit it – you would have been disappointed if a band name like that somehow led to something ‘normal’ anyhow!
LOVE the way this record begins. The ukulele strumming to full-effect with Rvzoo’s alt-indie-pop vocals delivering on the sweetness that a ‘Sugar Spun Elephant Band’ would imply. The delicate & tender nostalgia in the lyricism fits the vibe perfectly in amongst the highly inviting & enticing sound of “When I Was Young” – there’s no doubt about the ear-catching qualities of songwriting & execution like this. Great combinations of keyboards, guitars, drums, smart vocal effects & a completely creative breakdown that adds that psychedelic depth & tripped-out sound I was promising you we’d find in here somewhere! Rvzoo lives up to the potential and moves through this track brilliantly, keeping melody right in the spotlight but shining through a slightly bizarre prism of alt-pop sound, like a Beatles song of the modern-day, as friendly as a pepped-up Ben Folds tune, creative enough to satisfy fans of The Flaming Lips…you get the idea, there’s a widespread appeal in a style like this. “When I Was Young” starts this whole record up on the sunny-side…the warm energy is completely appealing to listen to.
Placement-wise, I was never entirely sure of “Give Me More” being so close to the front of this album as I listened. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the tune – but there’s no question about just how much its more sparse sound dials back the brightness a bit throughout that first ninety seconds after the sweetness of “When I Was Young.” After that first minute & a half, I think we’re back on completely solid ground and it fits, it does get back to that initial energy & brightness…but there’s a slight risk in pulling it back so soon in my opinion…”Give Me More” sounds and plays like a finale-style song and perhaps might have served better towards the end of Guiding Star. On the bright-side, I think placement is pretty much the only thing you can really question about this cut…other than that, the hooks are as strong as the performance, and the smooth way the song develops really does satisfy. I like the acoustic-nature & sound of the percussion & drums on this cut, I dig the slight island-style that sweetly invades the vibe, and ultimately, I think by the time that you reach the end of “Give Me More” you feel it was a ride worth taking each time, punctuated by the way this song evolves to its final moments.
You could definitely argue that “Give Me More” fits exactly where it is as well, because that bright pop-indie energy of the record’s beginning continues to hide even more on “Which Way To Run” afterwards. Stripped back to what I think is a gentle combo of banjo, pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and bass – where this third track succeeds most is providing that clarity in what we’re actually listening to here. While many ears might still be craving the easy-to-access hooks of a song like “When I Was Young” at the album’s outset, over the process of morphing the sound through “Give Me More” and “Which Way To Run,” you start to realize that there’s more at work here than just a quick attention grab…there’s songwriting that really holds up on Guiding Star. I still think there’s a risk in starting up the experience with the enticing energy of a song like “When I Was Young” and then pulling that rug somewhat out from under us by going more low-key in the approach to the following songs – BUT…I think by this third track, it sets us up for the possibility of a range of sound to follow that we can’t predict. “Which Way To Run” makes brilliant use of its Americana-folk vibe, storytelling-style of the lyrics – and that chord switch in the vocals around the 1:40 mark (ok ok, specifically, right freakin’ there) is absolutely exquisite. Seriously…we all know that one part of a song can be strong enough to make you love it – that’s the spot for me…I love how Rvzoo sounds, love the way the backup vocals complement him, LOVE the way they dip their tones into such a beautifully expressive & artistically crafted moment in this short song.
Before you even think about dismissing “If I Was A Bird” as a simple pop melody – make sure you really take a moment to listen to how smartly structured this is and the amazing clarity of every sound you hear. LISTEN to the timing, tempo, transitions…LISTEN to the extraordinary execution in performance and production. Rvzoo might be right off in the clouds here in imagining what life might be like as a bird & all, but like I always say, we all gotta write about something right? Why not life as a bird? I’m in! I’ll say this…I probably felt more strongly about the writing in the previous two songs, but I think that the way that “If I Was A Bird” lightens-up Guiding Star is essential at this point on the record. The orchestral-aspect of this cut with the violin sounds is off-the-charts cool to listen to and adds so much personality into the music while Rvzoo makes sure to supply an equal dose through the charming way he sings. Alt-indie…complete with ambient nature & bird sounds flying through your speakers – I think the welcoming sound of “If I Was A Bird” has a ton of universal appeal and a gentle approach that works. It’s easily the best song I’ve heard about theorizing life as a bird that I’ve heard this year folks, without question – and I’d be willing to bet it is for YOU too!
By the time you hear “A Song For Joyce” – I think you really begin to appreciate the artistic way that Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band are willing to take on such a range of sounds & ideas. Piano-led – I could honestly listen to this guy play all day long – you can hear the expression in each key played, allowing for the character of the music to play a serious role in the melody, guiding the vocals and even at times, the lyrics as well. “A Song For Joyce” in its own subtle way, really shines a light on the slight theatrical nature that exists in the material and in Rvzoo as a performer – like an actor, he slips right into character here, delivering a swagger in this song that gives it an irresistible charm of its own. A lot of these songs and the intimate sound they have…it all feels like you’re right in the room with Rvzoo – I don’t know if there’s a song on the record that highlights the specialness of that kind of atmosphere as well as “A Song For Joyce” does. You feel like you’ve just had a great night of drinks with your best friend and called it a night, and then just as you think it’s about to be over and you’re gonna head to bed, Rvzoo pulls this gentle gem out of his soul and starts playing the piano to send you to dreamland. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s both interesting and beautiful to listen to…the narrative in the lyrics is straight-up gorgeous…you really appreciate just how insightfully well Rvzoo can match his words to the energy & vibe of whichever style of song he’s creating. Sometimes it’s not even the words, sometimes it’s just a whistle! Right at the end of “A Song For Joyce” a stunning choice is made to end it without words and letting the whistling carry the melody instead…highly effective and a perfect exit.
Short & sweet is effective for Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band – but make no mistake, with a bit more room to move, the results are truly remarkable; listen to “Lonely Desert Wind” and recognize the sheer AWESOMENESS dear readers, dear friends. It’s all about attention to detail here – and the pure craft of dedicated songwriting. With the sharpest of focus, “Lonely Desert Wind” takes you on an incredible journey of sound within its layers…from the synth melody that so brilliantly starts up the song, to the clever keyboard hooks, the atmospheric elements, cymbals, drums, and extraordinary bass-lines that come in…that AMAZING pedal-steel…it’s all incredibly captivating. And then…THEN…just as you’re already settled into the gentle rhythm & groove, right when you think this song couldn’t get ANY better in more than a minute & a half’s worth of instrumental excellence – that’s when Rvzoo brings in the A-game and delivers a performance on the mic we haven’t heard from him quite like this on any other song so far. With Bowie-like tones, the amount of stylistic cool that Rvzoo sings with on “Lonely Desert Wind” is pure audio-gold to the ears – he sounds right in the pocket, comfortable, compelling, and honest. Proving that our most personal lyrics can form a bond with how we sing them that powerfully speaks to the connection between the writer and the song – “Lonely Desert Wind” felt gritty, raw, and real underneath all that smooth sound…like it exposed a vulnerability in the writing we hadn’t heard explored yet. I think the results were smartly objective as they were personal – and as a song overall, I think “Lonely Desert Wind” is without question one of the strongest songs on this new record.
Like Sparklehorse, Grandaddy, Golden Smog, Fountains Of Wayne…those alt-indie bands that can all of a sudden slip that sweetness into a beautiful melancholy like Band Of Horses – Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band take us gently into the album’s title-track, “Guiding Star.” Another song that highlights Rvzoo’s ability to match the atmosphere with his words – he guides you up & beyond the clouds through the dreamlike sound of “Guiding Star” – but also note the production aspects at work here as well, because smart choices are playing vital roles on this tune. That slight hint of reverb on the vocals gives extraordinary distance and depth to the sound, the layered effect on the chorus adds incredible strength to the chorus and almost dares the verses/more-exposed moments of Rvzoo’s vocals to get better & better throughout the entire song. When those layers get stripped away and he’s left on his own, that isolated & intimate sound of “Guiding Star” comes through louder than ever in the song’s quietest moments. Chilled-out as it gets, the self-reflective and thoughtful sound of the lyrics & vocals fits stunningly with the acoustic guitar & violin combo…beautifully performed, all the way through. There’s a humble way that Rvzoo approaches the vocals on this song that is sweetly innocent & exquisite to listen to…very impressed with the massive impact that this low-key & tender tune provided.
Is anyone out there surprised that on “Thru This Space And Time” that Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band dip into like, a mix of Lenny Kravitz-in-blues-mode-meets-Pink-Floyd-in-outer-space? Cause c’mon…you shouldn’t be surprised at this point – this project of Dave’s has curtained revealed its limitless potential & possibilities at every opportunity on this album, so heading into yet another different aspect of his sound shouldn’t be shocking – but it should certainly be welcome yet again. Instrumentation really stands out on this track as Rvzoo heads into more progressive terrain on “Thru This Space And Time” – for those that dig on their guitar solos and sheer badassery of technique & tone, you’ll get a real highlight from the man before this song is over. Took me a while to figure out who it was he was reminding me of in his vocal-sound on this cut, but after a while, I concluded it’s gotta be the guy from the Verve Pipe…I dig the extra gruffness in Rvzoo’s vocals alongside the melody. Lyrics, vocals…it’s all on-point once again without question, but it’s definitely the soaring guitars that steal the show on “Thru This Space And Time.” Doesn’t matter if you’re listening to the lead, or what’s happening in the background – they’re always present and always contributing something impressive to the song and to your ears along the way. MEATY track overall – I love the shift into the third minute and hearing that instrumentation hint at its takeover to come…you rip through the chorus hooks once more in their slow-burning smoldering smoothness until their fire has completely gone out in a near whisper, leaving you with absolutely stunning musicianship to take you gloriously to the end. This is writing that lasts.
The longest tune of the album comes right towards the end before a short reprise of “A Song For Joyce” to finish it off, it’s called “Transmission Ends.” Now here’s where the setup really matters – it’s fully because of the fact that Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band has established such versatility in sound throughout the record, that “Transmission Ends” will work as an ending. Otherwise…chances are…if you were to experience this one on its own or as a first impression, it’s probably a bit wandery for most people out there. I think the rubbery bass-lines sound great, I think the song has an inviting sound overall, but I do also think that in terms of what would retain the attention, the hypnotic elements that this final full-length song have working for it could also theoretically work against it for some out there. As it stands, for me personally, I found the more I heard it, the more I liked it and the more I got into its gentle rhythmic groove…it worked as an ending, but definitely more in an artistic sense as opposed to being full of easy to digest hooks. We haven’t been able to predict a single twist or turn throughout this record as listeners…this final cut teaches us that lesson one last time in what’s arguably one of the furthest expansions into the experimental-side of Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band’s sound.
With the switch of an old-school radio dial, the channel lands on “A Song For Joyce (Reprise)” to finish the experience off in an AM mono-style & classic tones. The trumpet was a brilliant addition and final touch to make this last moment have the opportunity to make an impact, even as understated & subtle as it may be. For all of a minute & thirteen seconds long, I honestly couldn’t take my ears off it – and I really can’t ever remember feeling that way about a reprise of anything before. The piano is gorgeous, the trumpet is spectacular, and the production steals the show in its muted presentation…loved it.
All-in-all – I had a great time & experience listening to this record and I felt like my attachment to the style & sound of Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band increased each time I played this record. There’s definitely something unique at work here…there’s a lot of creativity, a lot of melody, and a lot of courage combined in the commitment taken towards the approach in these imaginative ideas. Perhaps best of all, as gentle as it was, the album is loaded with twists & turns and different surprises in direction as it plays…you won’t see this one coming, and by the time you do, you’ll already be a fan.
Find out more about Rvzoo And The Sugar Spun Elephant Band at the official Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RvzooandTheSugarSpunElephantBand
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