The first song released by EL VY (The National’s Matt Berninger and Menomena’s Brent Knopf) off their album Return To The Moon was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. Hearing Berninger’s baritone voice on the title track removed from the context of the Dessner brothers’ sad, enchanting guitars felt a bit like going bald to a wig party. Wrong theme, buddy. Knopf’s guitar and general instrumentation popped, jumped, and danced, as restless as a boxer before the fight. Then EL VY released ‘I’m The Man To Be’ which opened with a mean, killer bass line with eyes on the prowl. Berninger practically growled his poetic mind-breaths about being high (possibly on fame), being “peaceful cause my dick’s in sunlight, held up by kites.” You realised Berninger had a fun side, not unlike J. Tillman’s transformation to Father John Misty.
The rest of the album gets better and better on repeated listens. Lyrically throughout the album, Berninger channels himself through the lives of The Minutemen’s D. Boon and Mike Watt. The title track is also named ‘Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo’ in which Berninger both poses what-ifs about the death of D. Boon in a car accident and hits back at Obama criticisers (“I’m so excited the senator’s a fighter, don’t tell me nothing’s changed”). ‘Paul Is Alive’ is a beautiful gentle ballad, Knopf’s synths as light as champagne bubbles. The guitar solo makes me think of Ennio Morricone marrying The Addams Family. There’s a particularly charming imagery of him waiting outside a punk venue, probably underage, definitely starry-eyed, listening to the thuds through the walls; Berninger’s mother had Beatlemania, Berninger had something else.
While Berninger may have many fans due to his unique voice, it’s the chemistry developed with Knopf that really makes this project a home run. Knopf manages to dovetail from style to style yet keeping up with whatever Berninger writes. Sharp punches on the organs accentuate the creepy connotations that surrounds the idea of two people being stuck in the same hotel for eternity yet never falling in love. Honeysuckle acoustic picking and piano back up a love letter to The Minutemen, with Berninger penning lines dripping of desolation (“watched the sun walk into the ocean, nothing I could do”). Return To The Moon finishes slightly more revved up, notes darting from Knopf’s guitar work. ‘Sad Case’ and ‘Happiness, Missouri’ share a musical root, the fork appearing on the former with crescendoing drums and heavy strumming. Yet it never develops into a full-blown rocker but slows down again. Instead, ‘Happiness, Missouri’ picks up the thread, Berninger zesty in his delivery from the get go.
In the current world of small profits and fleeting fandom, we get a lot of side projects from major alternative acts. Most are mediocre but EL VY make us forget we were even waiting for Menomena/Ramona Falls and The National releases.
El Vy’s new album was released October 30. They are performing at the Fairmount Theatre with Soren Juul on November 16 at 8 p.m. $30/35.