When I was in eighth grade I started playing guitar, and consequentially began my exploration of rock music. The seminal 1999 cult classic Detroit Rock City was my first introduction to KISS, and my friend Tom and I spent the whole springtime staying up all night watching Kissology, admiring especially Ace Frehley’s smoking guitar. KISS was followed by Led Zeppelin, by Muse, by AC/DC. Motorhead, Metallica, Megadeth, System of a Down, The Darkness… the furious hunger I had for rock was not limited by era or specific genre.
The most important part about these bands is that they were inspiring. In the same way that my dad escapes the stress of real life through Arnold movies and adamantly refusing to believe he’s seen a movie before (yes Dad we’ve seen Predator probably 40 times), Tom and I escaped the unbearable ennui of adolescence with Love Gun and Thunderstruck. This was not trite idolatry, this was goddamn life.
So when I hear people argue about the death of rock music, I get sad primarily for myself, for my still insatiable appetite for overdriven guitars, but more importantly for young people. I don’t care how cool and hip you are, I firmly believe that to a 12-year old there is nothing more amazing and creatively galvanizing than watching Paul Stanley strut about the stage humping his guitar while Frehley and Simmons hammer out power chords.
The Relevant Elephants, a Boston-based four piece, are a modern day titan of rock; a steadfast carrier of the flame whose poster I surely would’ve had on my wall. Their debut LP “Paper Walls” is nothing short of a masterpiece. Its charm lies in its humility - the songs are not flashy or supercilious, but the album as a whole possesses the capricious atmosphere of the rock albums I grew up on.
Co-fronted by Zack Hankins and Drew Lucas, the band has an interesting duality in its lead vocals. Like Lennon/McCartney, but more similarly Tankian/Malakian, the two frontmen have distinctive voices. Hankins’ sharp baritone is an effective partner to Lucas’ Wolfmother tenor, and the combination lends each song a unique flair and keeps the album interesting. See the back-to-back tracks “Rock n’ Roll Band” and title track “Paper Walls” to see what I mean.
Lucas also plays lead guitar, and the fact that he doesn’t brag about his enviable ability to switch seamlessly between ripping solos and singing says something about the band’s attitude towards their music. It’s barely even noted on the band’s website that Lucas shares lead vocals.
Filling out the band’s sound, Berklee alum Adam Khalil (Berklee represent yo) is the kind of bassist I get crushes on. He effortlessly doubles Lucas’ riffs, jumps between the chord changes, gorgeously touching the passing notes, he knows how to lay back, and more to my point plays to the song.
Drummer Mack Suhre isn’t mentioned a lot on the band’s website or Bandcamp page, which is a shame, because his playing, much like Khalil’s, is perfectly suited to the band’s music. Drum fills in this album are concise and businesslike, and most of the songs have a delicious swagger to them (see track #8 “Curse”).
The album is mixed and mastered exceedingly well, especially the vocal reverb and balance between Hankins’ acoustic rhythm guitars and Lucas’ squealy leads. The backing vocals sit perfectly behind the leads and the album maintains a sense of space, even with two guitars, two lead vocals, backing vocals, bass and drums. The songs have room to breathe.
Lyrically, the album is everything it should be. I didn’t expect Dylan but it’s not Rihanna either. They touch on issues like self-doubt without pretention, and this conversational nature compliments the album’s overall approachability. They also make lots of Boston shout outs, which is fucking rad. “Allston and Brighton are for drinkin’ and fightin’.” God damn. What a perfect lyric. I will never, as long as I live, be as proud of my work as they should be about that single line. Kudos, gentlemen. “Does everyone know what they’re doing except me,” the plaintive question raised by Hankins in the closing track “Up in the Air,” especially hits home for me, and the band nails the difficulty of closing tracks – they raise questions without pretending to know any answers or offering unsolicited advice.
Also, in track #5 “Starving Artist” check out this offhandedly beautiful (how appropriately Boston) line: “I tried to write this song before I met her but I kept getting lost at this part.”
The standout track “Rock n’ Roll Band” is a stomping, instantly singable gem. The Elephants organized this album well – opening track “Ivory Tower” shows all of their talents, “Allston and Brighton…” get you on their side (how could you not love a band that sings that lyric? What lyric? Oh let me write it out again. ALLSTON AND BRIGHTON ARE FOR DRINKIN AND FIGHTIN uh god I love that) and by the time you get to “Rock n’ Roll Band” you’re able to put aside all new-album fears and get enveloped in Lucas’ wailing lead vocals and bop the everliving shit outta your head. I played this song for my girlfriend and have listened to it about eight times during the writing of this review.
On a personal note, I knew this band before. Zack actually booked me my first ever show, playing at Boloco on Boylston St. I got burritos in return for 90-odd minutes of playing. My friend Charles played bass and my friend Ben played cajon. I was absolute shit. Zack was there nodding his head, running sound, and chowing the f down on a burrito. He gave me advice about busking, compliments on my playing that seemed pretty genuine, and he told me about his band, the Relevant Elephants. That was four years ago. Where the fuck have these guys been?
Zack’s willingness to help out a fellow Boston musician says yet another thing about the band’s general demeanor. They work hard, help each other out, and don’t take themselves extremely seriously. Their Twitter feed is hilarious, their hearts are in the right place, and their debut album is a genuine tour de force.
I just straight up cannot recommend this album enough.
1. Ivory Tower
2. Allston and Brighton are for Drinkin' and Fightin'
3. Starving Artist
4. Nowhere Sounds Nice
5. Rock n' Roll Band
6. Paper Walls
7. Yes or a No
9. Up in the Air