LIVE REVIEW: It’s Elephant’s at the Drunken Unicorn

It's Elephant's

It’s become increasingly rare for me to be genuinely surprised, to have my expectations defied. It’s not that I’m jaded—at least I don’t think so; not yet at least. I’d like to imagine that it’s more a condition of being oversaturated, of having heard an inordinate amount of music, sifted through so many stacks piled high, and only having so much space left to cram things into. But while that may sound good to my ego, really, it’s just fucking laziness. And the thing with laziness is that after a while you begin to look for ways to cheat. You develop a system: this band sounds like that band, this band plays (insert generic music sub-category here), this is that sick prog-metal side project from that guitarist dude who plays in that lame alt-country band—you know the routine. We all do it, and it’s completely weak and totally cowardly.

Because it’s a shitty way to embrace music: dropping bands into buckets, searching for labels to store them away neatly for future reference. Most of the time those bands—the ones that aren’t immediately discarded—get lost amidst the overwhelming multitude, ignored and forgotten after a few cursory listens, if that. But great music is not always self-evident; more often than not there is a filtering process, a process of analyzation, of breaking through the mere surface of things in order to get at the blood, guts and muscle that breathe life into the skeletal notes, chords and melodies that make up a song. It requires work on the listener’s end, an emotional investment that extends beyond just skimming the surface and pinning sounds to categories. Unfortunately, it’s a commitment that—either out of indifference or laziness—we’re usually unwilling to make.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with Atlanta soul punks, It’s Elephant’s, or their performance last Thursday at the Drunken Unicorn, here’s the thing: live music is different, the great equalizer, if you will. With live music you’re forced to contend with flesh and sweat, with the hypnotic echo and violent stabbing of guitars, with the reverberating boom of drums and percussion, with exposed emotions and passion made explicit. For a band, it’s an opportunity to drop the veil and reveal, in as naked a form as possible, what they truly are; how much talent, how much commitment, how much innovation and vision they possess.

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For my part, I’ll admit that when I came to see It’s Elephant’s perform, I walked in with preconceptions, with a set of expectations that I took for granted. It’s not that I disliked the band; like most groups they had certain innate strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that I couldn’t find anything particularly noteworthy about them. All the elements seemed to be there, gathered up and piled high like so much flint and powder—I was just waiting for that one bright, scintillating spark to set off the fuse. So when the trio kicked into the fiery whiplash of a new track called “Cotton Salsa” and the raging fires and flash bombs started erupting in my brain, I knew immediately that my expectations were about to be squashed. The group’s signature sound—a blend of nervy, angular guitars and soulful vocals—had remained intact, but now it was intermixed with fierce slabs of distortion and a sense of rhythmic unpredictability that lent the trio a certain substantive heft that it had lacked. Whereas before songs seemed to snap and splinter as if they lacked the proper framework to ground them, this opening number slid along smoothly, deftly balanced and firing on all cylinders.

The band proceeded to follow that bit of magic with another new scorcher, “Three Dicks,” an alternately jittery and slithering snake and mongoose of a song driven by a rumbling bass line, scattershot drums and winding guitars edging closer and closer to panic. It’s a track meant to build tension and unease, one that plays on the listeners wariness as the band hiccups through a series of stop-stutter progressions before erupting into the cathartic release of a killer bridge. It’s not anything that hasn’t been done before, but It’s Elephant’s pulled it off with confidence and a sense of bravado that felt fresh and invigorating. If this is the path that they intend to follow, one that embraces a partially abrasive aesthetic and that views the guitar as equal parts groove machine and bludgeoning weapon, then I think that the trio may soon find themselves on the cusp of breaking through to a wider audience.

Maybe it was the immediacy and the unbridled enthusiasm that comes with unleashing new material, but It’s Elephants seemed to triumph most when cranking out their latest work. Another new track, “To Hell With Sundays,” took the fervent tone set by the first two songs and set it ablaze in a firestorm of agitated guitars and erratic rhythms. And like a contagion, that feverish intensity spread and infected their older material, lending songs like “Better in ’77″ and the rollicking closer, “Brightside of an Ulcer,” with newfound grit and vitality.

So there it is. It was not an especially triumphant show for It’s Elephant’s. No huge crowd, no feel good sing-a-longs. But they played with urgency and heartfelt conviction. For my part, I was merely there, expecting—at best—a moment’s distraction. Instead I was jolted out of my lazy stupor and forced to rethink my preconceptions. Expectations defied and redefined in just under an hour. All buckets cast aside and labels put away, no longer necessary.

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