They may not admit it to themselves, because they’re just a few soldiers fighting against a wave of hardcore and indifference, but the band camp punkers in Tulsa are having a musical renaissance yet again. Several small renaissances have sprung up in Tulsa since punk emerged to wipe away the Eric Clapton and Leon Russell days, but this new one is made up of guitar-based bands who also really love keyboards, and find no hypocricy in switching back and forth from live drums to drum machines, from banjo to electro, for whatever suits the song or suits their fancy.
Elliott the Letter Ostrich have been doing it in Tulsa for at least half a decade or so, and in fact, this CD I’m about to review is itself two years old. But I doubt most folks outside of T-Town and maaaaaybe Norman and OKC have heard of them, and I like this CD a bunch more than their older stuff, so I’m going to start here.
Though I’ve never read of them mentioning it as an influence, the first thing that comes to mind when spinning these tunes is Elf Power’s first album. There’s a similar stripped-down, acoustic guitar sound, similar reverence for 80’s pop culture, and that voice–a male voice that’s sweet and mellow and on the high-pitched side, even when singing about murder and the undead.
That’s the theme of this album–bloodletting, vampirism, and murderers from popular culture. It’s a theme carried over from their previous albums and EP’s, but here it’s a little less hokey and aspires to something more than, say, the name-dropping crap that some bands in the 90’s were so fond of (Hey, Nerf Herder!).
When it comes to pulp horror imagery, there’s only a short list of folks who’ve been able to use in their songs and make it poignant. But it’s a good short list: Roky Erickson, the Misfits, Bauhaus, and the Damned, when they were at their best, all really peeled back the fake widows-peak wigs and polyester capes from shlock horror and exposed something dark and raw wriggling beneath. Whether it be the grim specter of death that manifests itself in gristly comedic ways (even Baba Yaga’s hut had chicken legs, and the Manson girls couldn’t spell the words they wrote in the blood of their victims), or the dystopian nightmares partially exposed by science fiction vampires and molemen, rock musicians have often been able to cry “Hammer Time” and arrest our attentions in ways often far more thrilling (because they’re so fucking crazy) than the source material they reference. Hasil Adkins, Bo Diddley, Nick Cave, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Screaming Lord Sutch, and Alice Cooper all understood this in a more broad way too.
Elliott the Letter Ostrich understand it in a very narrow 80’s nostalgia way, but this doesn’t halt the power of their musical charms when the tone is just right. “Ballad of Vorhees” is a moody, minimal love confession, with perfectly relaxed tempo, soothing vocals, and, oh shit, it’s written from the perspective of Jason from the Friday the 13th movies! “My Baroness” fits in with the vampire/Transylvania theme to the album, but actually it’s a fifth-grade love roleplay about Cobra’s Destro and his main squeeze, from G.I. Joe. “Knife Fight Baby Get Stabbed – Get Stabbed” has the most memorable and catchy chorus here, evocative of the kind of rockabilly and lyricism that Hasil Adkins or maybe Billy Lee Riley might have done if they were young Tulsa kids now.
Interestingly for an album written primarily with drum machines, here’s some rockabilly vamping on a couple tracks. They’re taking the piss a bit (reminding me of “Girl After Girl” from Like Flies on Sherbet by Alex Chilton) but they’re also fucking Tulsa kids and they really mean it, so it also kind of comes off like Alan Vega (or possibly, once again, the Damned). There’s also banjo, lots of acoustic geetars, interesting recording choices (I love it when they use lo-fi recorded drums to back up their “Intermission” song). And then they totally pull it back to fully electro Castlevania-esque tunes, including the oddly not-thematic “Power Glove” which is exactly what you’d think it is (it’s sugary cute, but without being precious or corny).
While I thoroughly enjoy the disc, my only wish for the band is to take things up a notch lyrically. True, dudes my age and younger grew into adolescence with the very pop-cultural detritus mined here. We did play Nintendo and we did sneak peeks at scary slasher films and we did think vampires were kick-ass and we did wonder each full moon if maybe we’d turn into werewolves. But while I agree that it’s relevant to talk about this stuff, the references need a little more wit and a little more emotional investment. Haven’t these guys ever had their hearts smashed, or felt a loneliness in the pits of their souls they couldn’t drink away, or had a friend die, or been angry at the city government for kicking the shit out of any non-corporate culture that threatens almost to make things kind of cool for everybody? Roky Erickson sings about walking with zombies because he’s been there, fighting demons in his own head, and that shit is coming straight from his soul. I don’t doubt that these guys have an amazing fondness for the cool shit they know, but if they could just craft it into something that pushes me to have an emotion, I think they could take it to the next level.
Ah well. I’m being mean, because I do get an emotion or two from this album. One is a haunting hope for love, and one is just flat out awesomeness! And with such tenderly delivered living room editing craftsmanship, who needs Shakespeare when the sounds are so great?
I wanted to put something on from this album, but I can’t resist parting with a clip from a previous tune, about Mummies of course. Enjoy.