This was the album launch for ‘Dreamland’, the debut long-player from sixties revivalists Elma. With the Portland already nearly full, Fragile Lives (aka Sandy Mill and newly solo) performed a short well-received set of very personal own compositions, mostly with acoustic guitar and a bit of experimental looping.
Chris Fox has more folky roots, and coaxed a whispering, bluegrass sound from his acoustic. As a devoted fan of John Martyn, rather than performing a cover he has written an excellent song in the style of the late, great performer. New single ‘Bird Of Paradise’ is a soothing taster of a forthcoming third album and ‘Pirates’ imaginatively stretched the boundaries of his set. His fine songs, relaxed delivery and skilled musicianship easily won over the supportive audience.
The evening belonged to Elma, with the long awaited release of their album (full review here https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/2018/08/23/elma-dreamland-lp-released-september-2018/).
This was a real showcase for their music, usually performed as a duo but this time with eight players on the Portland stage for the stomping opener ‘California’. The timeless sixties sound was made full by a three piece brass section, two semi-acoustic guitars and a solid backline featuring album producer Chris Pepper on drums. Mark Ellis’s guitar moved effortlessly between styles, as Ellie Gillett’s vocals sailed above, especially on the exuberant but melancholy ‘Slo-Mo’ and the lounge jazz of ‘All I Want’.
The heartbreaking showstopper ‘Butterfingers’ was balanced by the optimistic blast of ‘On My Way’ and two new songs made an appearance too. The audience of many friends and followers (and musical collaborator Boo Hewerdine) were behind the band all the way, it was an evening of genuine celebration.
The finale was appropriately ‘September’ and what an excellent song that is (I love that middle eight!).
A short encore ended with Mark and Ellie performing ‘Over The Rainbow’, which fitted in well as a reminder of the talents of the core duo of tonight’s unforgettable ensemble.
Retro duo Elma revive and re-interpret many aspects of sixties pop genres on their long awaited debut long-player ‘Dreamland’.
The title track sets the agenda with its sparse instrumentation, a leisurely waltz time, smooth melody and of course a lyric of regret and longing sung by the golden voice of Ellie Gillett. It conjures up the russet shades and faded grandeur of the deserted fairground and art-deco cinema on the album sleeve. Some of the tracks have been released before as inviting aperitifs to this full collection; the glorious stomp of ‘California’ and their four-track EP including the heartbreaking ballad ‘Butterfingers’.
(as reviewed on this site previously at https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/2018/07/01/elma-california-single-released-june-2018/ and https://cambridgemusicreviews.net/2017/11/05/elma-slo-mo-ep-released-october-2017/)
Mark Ellis orchestrates a full band sound with plenty of brass for anthem of independence ‘On My Way’ (featuring another fine middle eight and instrumental break).
‘The Game’ is a beauty, the atmospheric introductory waltz creating an image of a rainy London street in the 1960s or a black and white TV detective series theme, then the jazzy vocal takes control and lifts it to another level, with a big chorus suddenly appearing.
Then the album ends with two excellent and contrasting tracks; ‘All I Want’ is an appealing and effortless lounge-music vignette, the voice floating above lighter-than-air electric guitar work, bass and brushed drums, with a piano solo too.
Finally, if ‘Butterfingers’ left the listener in emotional turmoil, then ‘Late To The Party’ has surpassed it with lines like ‘….you did all that you could boy, you wrote our names in the clouds, too bad that I wasn’t looking up…..’. Over simple and effective acoustic guitar chords, Ellie delivers a show-stopping vocal performance of nuance and emotion, worthy of this superb song.
Elma are launching the LP with live dates featuring a full band, including a show at The Portland Arms in Cambridge on 27th September….
California has always held a semi-mythic status as a destination in pop music, with fine songs from The Mamas And The Papas, Beach Boys, Wedding Present, Gomez and many others.
Now Ely duo Elma have added to the list with an uplifting prelude to their soon to be released album. Although many of their songs and their live shows are just guitar and vocals, here they have gone for a full-band instrumentation with horns, multi-tracking and some sparkling drumming. Starting with some sinister backwards guitar, the main brass-driven riff soon establishes itself as a platform for another strong vocal performance from Ellie Gillett.
Repeated listens reveal more and more neat touches in the excellent production, no doubt with many of the instruments played by Mark Ellis. A spoken middle-eight has that strange guitar sound effect again but then we finish suddenly, the narrator never gets there, maybe never leaves their home town and will unfortunately not find that ‘….our sugar coated dreams will come true….’
Check out the accompanying video too, with faded retro beach and fairground images…
There is plenty of musical talent in the area not directly in the city of Cambridge; St. Ives, Haverhill and from Ely come Elma , named after singer Ellie Gillett and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Mark Ellis. Tapping into a sixties revivalist sound, this duo comfortably inhabit several styles and contrast with the many current performers who pursue pure psychedelia from that era. For a concert advert they say ‘see us!! We’ll make you laugh, then cry, then we’ll put you back together again’ which seems a fair assessment based on these four fine songs.
1. Slo-Mo. Co-written with highly regarded songwriter Boo Hewerdine, this end-of relationship waltz builds well with repeated listens.The mostly acoustic instrumentation ebbs and flows and somehow the direct lyric really nails the emotional idea, (‘…I read your letter, the black and the white and suddenly everything’s grey…’). Check out the video, filmed at the Cambridge Union café/bar, all good fun.
2. Butterfingers. Another collaboration with Boo, this is my favourite track on the EP. With hints of Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love and Eric Carmen’s All By Myself it is a plaintive piano ballad with a stunning vocal performance from Ellie; heartfelt, vulnerable yet still powerful. I love it.
3. September. I usually quite like this month but may have to reconsider after the traumatic lovelorn reminiscences described here, set to a full-on Phil Spectorish backing with handclaps, multi-tracked vocals and a proper middle eight section.
4. Settle Down. A quiet end to the EP, both of the duo get to sing here, gentle verses and a catchy hookline underpinned by acoustic guitar.
The band are regularly gigging around the area, on the evidence of this EP I look forward to a full LP too….