Back in the day, I was a huge fan of the The Elms, the Indiana-based band that bled and sweat their brand of rock and roll all over the first decade of this century. They called it quits in 2010 and part of my world died. I know that’s melodramatic, but it’s true to how I feel. Losing them, and all the great music they would have birthed, created a void in my life. A void I’ve had trouble filling ever since. Early on The Chess Hotel, their stunning third album that turns fifteen this year, the band asks a simple question, “Who puts rock and roll in your blood?” Twelve tracks and nearly 40 minutes later, if your answer doesn’t include The Elms, you’re doing something wrong. Consider this a celebration of the band and the album that proved they were as good as anyone in the game.
During their ten year run, The Elms released four studio albums. Their debut, The Big Suprise, has some memorable moments, and while it’s not something I revisit often, it did provide some tantalizing hints for what was to come. The band followed that up by delivering three staggeringly complete albums. I would consider two of their next three albums as good-to-great. Their Sophomore effort, Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, is all lovely Britpop fused with Tom Petty sensibilities while their swan song, The Great American Midrange, effectively mines Mellencamp and Americana-saturated rock and roll.
Fifteen years ago, sandwiched between those two latter albums, we find The Chess Hotel. It is hands down one of the best albums of the decade. I’m fully prepared to fight about this, for what it’s worth. (All the usual disclaimers that music is subjective and no one could possibly listen to all the music released in a given year, let alone a decade. Blah, blah, blah.) The album is fire and heart, anger and hopelessness. It rages and quakes, spits and screams. It consoles and commiserates, reflects and looks ahead. Four men. Guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. No frills. No tricks. Just guts and glory and copious amounts of in-your-face rock and roll. If that’s not your thing, move along. This won’t be for you.
The Chess Hotel
Late last year, Rambling Ever On unveiled our Top 100 Christian rock albums of all time. If you missed that series, you can start here. The Chess Hotel landed in our number 29 spot. For what it’s worth, by the time 2006 rolled around, I doubt the band would have labeled themselves as a “Christian” rock band. Sure, there is plenty of spirituality to their music, but I think they had moved beyond those sorts of titles. They were a rock band. Full stop. Even so, I was determined to include them in our list as they had honed their skills and cut their teeth in the Christian music world.
Here’s some of what I wrote for The Chess Hotel for that series:
“I can think of only one phrase to describe the 3rd album from Indiana’s own The Elms: “kick you in the teeth” rock and roll…The Chess Hotel proved to be a pretty hard left turn for the band, taking them down bluesier, heavier roads. Singer and songwriter Owen Thomas mines small-town Americana, but without the rose-colored glasses so often found in that genre. The songs are in turn defeated and defiant, bleak and hopeful. They spent three years touring and redefining their sound and honing their skills and the results are nothing short of impressive. There are shades of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Zeppelin, The Black Crowes, and The White Stripes hiding for those who wish to look, but the sound, energy, and swagger is all The Elms.”THE TOP 100 CHRISITAN ROCK ALBUMS, PART THREE
“Kick you in the teeth.” That feels right. From the opening number, the band takes no prisoners. I’m not usually drawn to loud and aggressive music, but The Chess Hotel’s muscular intensity had my attention from the jump. If you were ever fortunate enough to see the band perform live, you absolutely know what The Chess Hotel sounds like. Better yet, you know what it feels like.
I won’t belabor the point and dress up this review with flowery language any more than I already have. The Elms get in and out of songs on The Chess Hotel like their lives depend on it so I’ll do my best to honor that sensibility from this point forward.
The songs on The Chess Hotel weren’t crafted and finessed at the mixing board. No, they were wrestled into submission by the band; a visceral energy infuses every song. It’s there in the loud and raucous opener, “I am the World” and it confidently struts its way through the rest of the album.
When fire is required, the band burns down the house. (See “Who Puts Rock and Roll In Your Blood”, “Nothing To Do With Love”, and “The Chess Hotel”) When a little more tenderness is warranted, they sidle up close and lay their hearts bare. (Listen to “I Left My Body and Never Came Back” and “I’ve Been Wrong”) If fun and escape is your beverage of choice, the drinks are on them. (Check out “The Way I Will”, “Black Peach”, and “Makes Good Sense”) And if all that isn’t quite enough, they take things to another level and leave you with a modern day masterpiece. (Behold “The Towers and the Trains”)
There’s a sense of immediacy permeating every note. Four men set up their instruments, plugged in, and played and sang their hearts out. That’s it. I don’t mean to downplay the work involved in writing the songs or the work done in the studio. I’m sure both aspects were labored over with care. Owen Thomas (lead singer, guitars, songwriter) penned the best and most important songs of his career for The Chess Hotel. And producer David Bianco works magic in capturing the band at its best.
But, when all is said and done, the “in the room” sound of the album is its biggest selling point, and does it ever sell the album! All four pieces of the band are in perfect rapport. Owen Thomas, Thomas Daugherty (guitars, vocals), Christopher Thomas (drums, vocals), and Nathan Bennett (bass, vocals) leave nothing in the studio. Every note, every beat, every word erupts from their hearts and into our souls. It’s an album that will beat you up but won’t leave you down. It pulls you to your feet and sends you on your way stronger and wiser than you were before.
The Chess Hotel is fifteen years old. Listening to it today, it hasn’t aged a day. And when I listen to it fifteen years from now, I’m sure I’ll feel the same. It deserved better when it released and it surely deserves better now. Trust me, if you want to rock out for 40 minutes, you won’t find many better options. Perhaps after you listen to the album, you will be able to answer the question, “Who puts rock and roll in your blood?” I know I can.