Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin | Elsinore
November 4, 2011
The perfect pop song is out there, forever out there, and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin may never find it, but on some nights getting to share in the search is more than enough.
At the Firebird on Friday the Springfield, Mo. band celebrated its tenth year of cardigan pop underdoggedness with some sixteen songs or so from its breezy, playful, wistful catalog -- a concert analog to its recently released Tape Club bonanza.
A late dinner meant I'd miss first opener, Dots Not Feathers, but I joined the 100 or so pop geeks for Elsinore, a guitar, keys, bass and drum quartet from Champaign, who are growing into the tunes often secluded in excessively elaborate time signatures and coy flirtations with the collegiate jam. Over-singing isn't a complaint I often make of indie rock bands, but in Elsinore's case I'll make an exception.
Or a partial exception, as Ryan Groff has the muscular, wide-mouthed pipes to move straight to the head of the X-Factor class -- be glad Jeff Buckley never had such temptations -- and for all his melismatic vocal prowess, Groff reigns it in, shapes falsetto phrases for fleeting emotions, especially on excellent songs like "Chemicals," which yet ended with a near-symphonic noise jam. Best of all was a new, as yet unnamed song, just finished and debuted at the Firebird, with bursting power chords that made me think of the Midwest's definitive power-pop band, Cheap Trick.
"We wouldn't play this at a bar in Aurora, Illinois," Groff said. "We wanted to share it with the Firebird and St. Louis, two places that are synonymous with home." It didn't sound like ingratiation.
Starting with just Rickenbacker and harmonies, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin's John Robert Cardwell and Jonathan James slid into "New Day," one of dozens of minute Midwestern girlfriend reveries -- complete with porch swing -- from Tape Club, then bringing up Phil Dickey to the drums and Will Knauer -- looking like he got lost on the way to St. Charles for a Skynyrd cover-band gig -- to lead guitar for "Made to Last" from the band's best album Let It Sway. SSLYBY is almost unbearably comfortable in its skinny, youthful nonchalance. The friends bring their backyards and high school basements with them wherever they go, proud to proclaim, "Setlist free since 2001," content to just seem as if they're making it all up as they go along.
And they sound great: Harmonies so unstudied, enthusiasm in the melodies not in antic posing, dynamics small but thrilling all the same. On record, the band is sometimes distracted by dabbling -- casual noise, plinkety guitars, tinkled keys, fake strings and woodwinds -- but on stage its all lean electric guitars, blissful harmonies and just-tight-enough rhythms. For "Think I Wanna Die" Dickey stood up over the drums and cracked away, bouncing and smiling, right into "Banned (By the Man)," another a blast of "na-na-na" pleasure that refuses to grow up. "Time cuts slow but you'll miss it now," sang Cardwell," and he sounds like he doesn't want to miss a thing.
Dickey joked that "Oregon Girl" made it into The OC and then the show got cancelled, which about sums up SSLYBY's luck. But the band never shows that it cares about its fate, not with fans asking for autographs outside -- technically on a wedding congrats card for a girl who couldn't be there -- and a short-skirted redhead, all of nineteen maybe, mouthing the words to every song at the edge of the stage. Songs like "Letter Divine," "House Fire" and "Missing Yellow Signs" -- during which Dickey ripped his Springfield Cardinals shirt down the middle -- deserve the affection and admiration of anyone who cares about pop craft, the kind that's so much harder than it looks.
And then, heading towards the end of the night, the near-perfect, small-town Missouri companion pieces, "Back In the Saddle" -- "About going to the mall with your mom," Dickey explained -- and "Sink/Let It Sway," in which pretty girls look for parking spaces just like everybody else and we all can't hope to do more than just play well the hand we're dealt and sway through life as we find it.
Or maybe we'll just take in the joyful encore of "Cardinal Rules," a Springfield baseball anthem haphazardly rewritten for St. Louis, and shared like the band and its fans have known each other all their lives and none of us will ever grow too old to sing along together.
Notes and setlist on the next page. Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: None, really. SSLYBY couldn't pick me out of a lineup. In its ten years together I've only written about the band a handful of times. The guys have no debt to me, unless they want to pay me back for all the afternoons happily wasted humming their melodies.
Overheard: Fellow RFT scribe Chris Bay leaned over into my least-deafened ear to say, "This band is like Springfield's Uncle Tupelo. I don't think that town knows what it has."
Overheard: "Raise your hand if you play for the Cardinals," Cardwell said. "Yes, we have one Cardinal in the house! Oh, you don't really play for them. What an asshole."
Made to Last
Think I Wanna Die
Banned (By the Man)
Back in the Saddle
Sink/Let It Sway
Yellow Missing Signs
All Hail Dracula!