The unfilial Elvis Brothers (drummer Brad, singer/bassist Graham and guitarist Rob) from Champaign, Illinois have roots in many local bands of that area (some, like Brad’s Screams, credible, others cringeable); together, they played a marvelous (and deceptively simple) concoction of slicked-up rockabilly, stripped-down Cheap Trick-tinged melodic rock and roll and pristine pure pop that boasts superbly articulated energy, occasionally goofy lyrics and enough hooks to catch a school of minnows. Movin’ Up traverses a panoply of mildly bent styles, from mock-Stray Cats (“Fire in the City”) to Dave Edmunds-ish nostalgia (“Hey Tina”) to Anglo-pop (“Hidden in a Heartbeat”) to countryfied rock (“Santa Fe”) and much more. Sure, they futz around a lot (especially onstage), but their silliness never interferes with the serious task of playing catchy pop with maximum gusto. It may not have meant a lot, but the first album is truly mega-fun.
Adrian Belew’s more complex production of Adventure Time doesn’t dampen the E-Bros.’ lighthearted spirit. There are socially responsible messages about gun control and insanity in the modern world but, by and large, the Elvises go about their business with typical happy-go-lucky aplomb. From the melodic rush of “Burnin’ Desire” and “Somebody Call the Police” to the gentle beauty of “Crosswinds” and the clockwork pop precision of the Japanese fan tribute “Akiko Shinoda,” they effortlessly toss off tune after tune of infectious should-be-hits. The two albums were subsequently paired on a single CD under the debut’s title.
Losing their major-label contract and spending the better part of a decade playing Chicago-area clubs without making a record didn’t blow any of the fizz out of the band’s sails: Now Dig This emerges from the same wellspring of spirited tunefulness. There’s little evidence of the band’s silly streak, but the best songs here are otherwise as appealing as any in the trio’s past. “Valentine,” “Strangelove,” “Dreamland” and “Next Time I Fall in Love” all recall aspects of the 1965 Beatles, but with crisp modern energy and Midwestern flair. Meanwhile, “I’ve Got Skies for Her” and “Peace of Mind” try on a psychedelic rock frock.
Since the end of the Elvis brotherhood, Brad (Steakley) has led a couple of great Chicago-based bands with singer/spouse Chloe F. Orwell. (He has also served as the drummer in the Romantics, which just shows to go you how skinny tie nostalgia has taken on the never-say die attributes of classic rock.) The first two Big Hello albums are available together on the limited-edition Apples and Oranges, a slice of power pop perfection with hyped-up energy in place of heavy rock power. Brad’s drumming is hyper-kinetically solid in the vein of Clem Burke, but it’s Orwell’s strong, character-packed singing that sells the songs, which are smart, tuneful and funny when they need to be (“Riot Gurl,” “Don’t Step on My Cat,” “Boys Can Be Dumb,” “Star 69”). The bonus tracks include an original that borrows its title from Marshall Crenshaw’s “Cynical Girl” and a helium-fueled cover of the Fifth Dimension’s “Up Up and Away” as well as four brief outtake snippets that end the disc on deliriously charming note, as Chloe hollers while Brad goes nuts on “Slingerland Drums.”
Moving on to the Handcuffs, Brad and Chloe blow off a lot of the froth in a tougher but no less melodic approach, with guitars that hit harder and beats that mean more business. Orwell smoothly shifts from the Cyndi Lauper-type character she conveyed in the Big Hello to a bold and brassy pre-hip-hop Gwen Stefani. For the most part, upping the ante all around makes the progression work as a respectable bid for chart potential. The noirish “Car Crash,” which begins Model for a Revolution, is a clear standout, as are “Beg Me Beg Me,” the quiet-verse/big-chorused “Love Me All the Way” and “Peggy Moffitt,” an ode to the ’60s Rudy Gernreich mannequin (“a model for a revolution”) who graces the CD cover. The Cheap Trick-y guitars (by Frank Canino and Preston Pisellini) are distracting in spots, and too many bands have made songs out of the “Sex and Violins” pun to need another one, but otherwise Model for a Revolution is a run(a)way winner.
Orwell sounds more like Debbie Harry on Electroluv, walking the same line between coquettish and defiant in a broad spectrum of styles. The new lineup includes guitarist/pianist Ellis Clark and bassist Emily Togni (although Canino and others contributed, and the resourceful Orwell adds synth, flute, sax, organ, vibraphone and guitar); the sound is less pure pop and more, dare it be said, adult. Brad’s songs tend to cling to tag lines (“Half a Mind,” “God Is Sure One Funny Girl,” “I Just Wanna Be Free, Man,” the outstanding “Gotta’ Problem With Me?”) in the choruses, but most of the ideas being ridden so hard are clever enough for it not to matter. The peppy “Somebody Somewhere,” with distorted spoken vocals, is ferocious fun, while Orwell’s “Turn It Up” is another highlight.
Waiting for the Robot (which relies on Clark for guitar but is otherwise ad hoc in terms of instrumental contributors) notches up the band’s achievement in sound (burly and loud), songs (fun and smart) and singing. Orwell’s trick of double-tracking her voice in full-throated harmony somehow underscores the Harry comparisons, and the rarity of a band whose drummer is its primary songwriter and co-producer makes for a pop-minded album that is strongly rhythmic. That Elvis is a top-notch player doesn’t hurt, either. At its best (on “Miss You on Tuesday,” “Vinyl Isabella” and elsewhere), the album is a burly rocker, with a solid and fat rhythm section balancing Orwell’s energetic vocals. “Baby I Love You” (taking advantage of the fact that song titles can’t be copyrighted) is a rare Brad/Chloe duet that conveys the couple’s romantic sentiments in offbeat lines like “Put a gun in my hand, put a gun to my head / You’ve got to believe everything I’ve said is true.”