Compact Review: EL VY’s Return to the Moon

EL VY – Return to the Moon
Released: October 30, 2015
Rating: 76/100

I could listen to Matt Berninger’s voice all day. His signature baritone has led The National through a decade of increasing critical acclaim and commercial success. Just this week, Stereogum published an extended profile of the band and included some hints that a new The National album is in the works. As we anxiously await The National’s return, EL VY works as a quirky appetizer. Created by Berninger and multi-instrumentalist/producer Brent Knopf (Menomena, Ramona Falls), EL VY’s debut album Return to the Moon has all the highlights and pitfalls you might expect from an indie rock side-project/super-group.

Side-projects like EL VY are inherently compelling because they offer the chance to hear something that is simultaneously familiar and unknown. Matt Berninger has one of the most distinctive voices and lyrical styles in indie rock and while his voice is instantly recognizable with EL VY, the feeling is different. The National have built a career around the somber existential crises of adulthood so it’s no shock that Berninger’s first significant release outside of The National would travel a lighter path.

At their best, the music of EL VY has a zany swagger to it. Look no farther than the blissfully confident chorus of  “I’m The Man To Be”:

“I’m peaceful ’cause
My dick’s in sunlight
Held up by kites
‘Cause I’m the man to be”

A few songs later on “Need a Friend”, Berninger laments the tragedy of someone not bringing their brother’s weed to him and despite the silliness of the premise, it’s surprisingly effective when he sings the tortured line “This is heartbreaking” repeatedly to end the song. EL VY often embrace the irony and humor of #FirstWorldProblems and it gives the album a magnetic charm. Moments like these make Return to the Moon worth the listen.

But Return to the Moon isn’t all sunlight and weed problems. EL VY may have coaxed out the brighter side of Berniger but the dude doesn’t know how to not be a bummer. Songs like “It’s a Game” and the Ferguson inspired “Sad Case” are heavy with grief and loneliness though Knopf’s production style provides a fascinating new backdrop for Berninger’s performance.

The second half of Return to the Moon stumbles through an inconsistent blend of forgettable tracks. EL VY hit their stride when they are making tunes that are decidedly un-National like but some of the more solemn songs on Return to the Moon sound like The National’s leftovers and that’s ultimately what holds EL VY back. There aren’t enough new ideas to propel Return to the Moon into my regular rotation and it lacks the depth and tension filled sonic aesthetic of The National.

Side projects are always a risk. It may be a new band but the endeavor comes pre-loaded with expectations that are difficult to fulfill. EL VY’s Return to the Moon works best when Berninger and Knopf explore the more whimsical side of their sound and work to contrast their reputations. It’s worth a listen but Return to the Moon ultimately feels more like a placeholder than a substantial release.

Top Tracks: “I’m the Man to Be”, “Need a Friend”, “It’s a Game”



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