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Elska: On the Shoulders of Giants
by George Graham
(Fat Possum Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/24/2021)
The traditional model of a singer-songwriter is that of a guitar strumming folk-influenced solo artist, sometimes accompanied by a band. There are also the piano-based artists. But with electronic instrumentation being so ubiquitous, it’s interesting that most of the artists who go for that kind of sound tend to end being more commercial pop than literate lyricist. This week, we have a first-rate singer-songwriter recording that takes advantage of a mixture of electronic instrumentation, with some guitars and drums, in an appealingly tasteful combination. The album is by a project called Elska, and the title is On the Shoulders of Giants.
Elska’s lead vocalist and co-songwriter is Elsa Lee, originally from Northern Minnesota, and her songwriting partner, co-producer and multi-instrumentalist is Owen Sartori. In the CD’s package, Elska is defined as being old Norse, meaning “to care for; to hold dear, to love.” It’s the debut album by the group and Ms. Lee, and it’s an impressive first outing, emerging fully formed with a well-defined and distinctive sound. However Owen Sartori’s resume includes some 35 years as a performer and songwriter, so there is obviously that experience that went into the project. Ms. Lee and Sartori also work together at a studio in Minneapolis, where he is a founder and she is the studio manager, and works as an engineer, studio musician and pianist.
In any case, the project is impressive in its combination of high-quality songwriting, Ms. Lee’s appealing vocals, and the excellent arrangements using the mixture of the electronic and the conventional, that come together in a sonically brilliant way.
Ms. Lee is the main keyboard player with Sartoni on some guitars and drum programming. Also appearing are Mark Messina on conventional drums, Reuben Thompson on bass and Bryan Ewald on slide-style guitar.
The songs are up to the literate standard of a folk-influenced singer-songwriter with lyrics ranging from an allegorical love songs to LBGT issues to an old-fashioned hippy-style appeal for people to get along.
Opening is the title track On the Shoulders of Giants which pays respect some of the influential women in the life of the protagonist. The track spotlights the creative arrangement and nice mix of the electronic and the conventional. <<>>
A bit more contemporary pop is a song called You First, which is also a sonic delight. <<>>
With Elska coming from Minnesota, it seems more or less natural for them to do a song called Endless Winter, which serves as a kind of analog for life in general. <<>>
One of the love songs is a clever piece called Hummingbird, in which a guy who is the object of the singer’s affection flits from one “flower” to another. <<>>
One of the more striking songs on the album is called The Last Tree on Earth an ecological warning, along the lines of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, but with a kind of reverent sound. <<>>
A song called Caroline is also notable for its lyrical content: the story of two women who love each other and what they had to face. <<>>
About the rockiest-sounding track on the album is Stop Talking, Listen, which basically says to get over a heartbreak. <<>>
The album ends with a perhaps its most positive statement, a song called Gratitude which is about just that, extending thanks to those deserving.
On the Shoulders of Giants the debut album by the Minnesota-based studio project Elska, is a thoroughly worthwhile recording that is a creative and very tasteful hybrid of the electronic and the more conventional instrumentation, in the context of an intelligent singer-songwriter format with excellent compositions and the very appealing vocals of Elsa Lee. The music nicely balances the sumptuous ambient sound with hummable melodic pop elements. It’s an album that shows a very high level of craftsmanship, from the writing to the recording.
And our grade for sound quality is an A with the combination of clean sound and warm ambiance and a nice three-dimensional quality. I might deduct a couple of points for the inevitable volume compression to make the recording sound louder than it needs to be.
Electronic-based singer-songwriter music almost seems like an oxymoron. But Elska pull it off in spades.
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