July 30, 2010

North of Northwest: Elliott Brood

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To understand Elliott Brood, begin with the first track on their most recent album, 2008′s Mountain Meadows. “Fingers And Tongues” tells the (true) story of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, an 1857 slaughter of one hundred twenty men, women, and children in the Utah Territory. “The little ones were all they saved / As they laid them open on the salty plains / They claimed the wild ones were to blame / As they buried families with their names.” These cheerless lyrics are placed within the framework of a somewhat upbeat country song, exultant in melody, hand clap- and boot stomp-ready.

You see, from the lyrics, why Elliott Brood describes their music as “death country.” But despite this bleak moniker and despite the album’s morbid inspiration, Mountain Meadows is really a hopeful record, more curious and explorative than truly grim. After presenting “Fingers and Tongues” as a prologue, the band spins off twelve song-stories inspired by the massacre and, specifically, the children under age seven who were the only survivors. “What happens to these kids afterwards?” vocalist Mark Sasso wondered to Exclaim! magazine. “What happens to their relatives or their families down the line?”

The end result of this speculation is a sort of musical storybook of the American West. Abstract yet familiar characters appear in classic scenes from our frontier mythology: the lonely drifter in “Without Again” (“His love went south / And he’ll go west”), the lovestruck courter in “Woodward Avenue” (“I’ll hold you in my arms now as we stroll down the boulevard / And how we love the evening in the gaslight flooded streets”). Visions of bustles and boots dance along the melodies and into your head.

And a merry dance it is, for above all else, Elliott Brood is a boot-stomping, hand-clapping good time. Organic and energetic, the band famously used a Samsonite suitcase in place of a bass drum to get a hollower, more stomp-like sound, until the suitcases’ frequent destruction made the technique logistically prohibitive. Live, they encourage the band to supplement their guitars, banjos, and ukuleles with pots and pans, blurring the line between performer and audience and generally encouraging participation and celebration. “Let’s forget we’re up here and you’re down there, ” guitarist Casey Laforet says. “We’re all gonna get up on stage eventually or we’re gonna come down there.”

From a dark place, Elliott Brood creates truth and beauty. The beauty of hope, the beauty of imagination, the beauty of celebration. The beauty of banging away your cares on a frying pan with a wooden spoon. Simply put, I think we could all use a little more of that beauty in our lives. _____

Elliott Brood play KEXP’s Concerts at the Mural Friday, August 6. Bring your own stomping boots; pots and pans will likely be provided. _____

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