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Astral Auguries: Elliott
Dredging up the musical past for future enjoyment.
Like all music fans, I have my blind spots.
The nature of this newsletter beat of mine means that, on a typical week, I’ll spend around seven hours a day listening to music. That rabid consumption usually equates to 25-30 albums and hundreds of individual songs, with 47% representing new first-time listens. (Thanks, last.fm. Isn’t data surveillance fun?)
This also means that I often have to make a concerted effort to circle back around to old records that exist outside my listening sphere. And every now and again, I’ll stumble across an album that I’ve known about or seen mentioned in passing but has still managed to escape my dogged musical survey.
Such is the case with Elliott and their sophomore studio album, False Cathedrals.
While I had vaguely known of Louisville rockers Elliott for some time—situating them in my head alongside other late 90s/early 00s staples like The Casket Lottery, Texas Is The Reason, Knapsack, The Jealous Sound—they popped back up on my radar recently with their inclusion as part of the 2022 lineup for Furnace Fest back in February.
As Andrew Sacher notes in a piece for BrooklynVegan, the band were set to reunite for the first time in 19 years (!) and with a notable line-up: founding frontman Chris Higdon, longtime drummer Kevin Ratterman, original guitarist Jay Palumbo, and new bassist Ashli State (Guilt, Ink & Dagger, Comess).
The other important detail was the mention of the band performing their second studio album, False Cathedrals (2000), in full as part of the reunion. This seemed to me, even with my scant knowledge of the band or that record, as a big deal. And as Sacher put it:
“If you're unfamiliar with False Cathedrals, it's a timeless album that helped bridge the gap between second and third-wave emo and left a clear impact on the emo boom that ensued a year or two after its release.”
With my interest considerably piqued, I decided that I needed to devote time and energy to this record. And while diligent readers will likely notice a significant gap in time between February and late July, there are actually two good reasons why False Cathedrals finally ended up in my listening queue.
The first is that I initially forgot all about it. (Look, I make no excuses for being a busy guy.) And the second pertains to my recent Deep Cuts column on Coliseum’s fantastic Sister Faith (2013). In that piece, I mentioned Kevin Warwick’s excellent scene report for Bandcamp titled “A Guide to Louisville Post-Hardcore,” which places Elliott in a diverse regional lineage that includes acts like June of 44, Rodan, The For Carnation, and Slint.
What stood out for me about Warwick’s entry on False Cathedrals was how the record appeared to be shaped by the raw intensity of 90s emo-core while also finding strange new contours through bold production choices and lofty alt-rock melodies:
“Fronted by guitarist Chris Higdon’s restrained and airy vocals, Elliott toyed with a track’s dynamics in similar methods to its predecessors—via dramatic shifts in tempo and limber guitar riffs. But on 1998’s U.S. Songs and especially 2000’s False Cathedrals, there exists a pop-driven polish that felt railed against in the earlier half of the decade. Elliott was beholden to D.C.’s Revolution Summer movement, and all that was born from it.”
The first thing that stuck out to me on False Cathedrals was a bass line.
After the sixty-six seconds of album opener “Voices” breeze by with hurried background noise and hints of an angelic chorus, “Calm Americans” begins in earnest. Higdon’s delicate refrain slides in against quaint piano notes just as the group’s rhythm section turns things up a notch. Ratterman’s kit adds propulsive momentum to an otherwise subdued instrumental, as Jonathan Mobley’s kinetic bass thrum layers in hypnotic groove and feeling.
For an emo record, especially one from that Y2K turning point in history, the track strikes a bold and confidently rock-focused tenor that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Wilco or Dismemberment Plan album.
Reflecting on the record twenty-two years later, Higdon describes how False Cathedrals is the product of four individuals at a unique point in time:
“Making that record was intense, the schedule and the pressure we put on ourselves. It's hard to explain, but ultimately my mind always circles back to the lineup, I guess. It was a self-created push-pull dynamic we had that was as exciting as it was frustrating.”
This almost romanticised sense of tension and release is all over False Cathedrals. Take the melodramatic swelling of “Blessed By Your Own Ghost” (also Hidgon’s favourite track off the album) or the glossy theatrics of the Clarity-aping “Calvary Song.”
There’s also the radio-ready summer ballad “Drive On To Me,” with its simplistic, effervescent chorus aided along by Palumbo’s shimmering guitar lines. Others, like the proto-Hot Topic slogan “Lipstick Stigmata”, sound like Incubus played through a gentler, more sentimental filter.
According to Higdon, Ratterman and Palumbo were expanding the musical horizons of the group during the recording process, filtering a diverse collection of artists and influences that included “Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Jawbreaker, Jawbox, Seaweed, [and] Sugar.”
This daring approach to emo songcraft yields some interesting results, with Side B of False Cathedrals being stacked with a crop of best-ever songs. “Shallow Like Your Breath” allows Higdon’s plaintive register to waver and strain to an almost heartwrenching degree, highlighting some of his most confessional lyricism to date (“We claw and mark like animals/ They show the scars we hide too well.”)
“Dying Midwestern” starts off with sprawling darkness before a burst of light shines through, reminiscent of Thursday’s Waiting in its approach to dynamic range, while album standout “Superstitions In Travel” feels like the poetic rage of At The Drive-In shined up to an almost blinding lustre.
Returning to the band’s status within the hallowed halls of 2000s alternative music, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Elliott became, as Tom Mullen puts it for Washed Up Emo, “one of the first bands ‘forgotten’ when emo took over the world for a few years.” However, a few curious details of note stand out.
Their career after False Cathedrals was tumultuous, to say the least. Palumbo and Mobley left shortly after the record’s completion, with bassist Jason Skaggs and guitarist Benny Clark (Falling Forward) moving in as replacements. Elliott also dropped off midway through a tour with The Toadies in 2001, citing “disagreement with management decisions.”
2003 would then see the release of their follow-up third album, Songs in the Air, beginning as an EP before rapidly expanding into an LP project. The album found the quartet moving ever further away from their raw 90s sound, embracing ethereal soundscapes and incorporating noticeable post-rock elements. Following the album’s release in April and yet more member changes, the band quietly disbanded in November of that year.
One can almost imagine a world where none of these events transpires. A world where False Cathedrals resonates with the wave of enthusiasm emo would receive in 2001, where mainstream interest and industry upheavals effectively launched the careers of acts like Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, Thursday and others. After all, Spotify’s mEMOries playlist, with a tidy 70,070 likes, puts Elliott right alongside these groups and many, many more.
And yet, while we don’t live in that world, we do have False Cathedrals. Take solace in that and give it a spin.