Honesty and rock 'n' roll have always enjoyed an uneasy truce. For every group that bleeds sincerity, there's another that revels in absurdity. Elefant, fronted by the purposely flamboyant Diego Garcia, further blurs the line, incorporating theatrical flair into notoriously self-serious indie rock. Garcia is the driving force behind the band, expertly juggling the archetypal roles of hedonistic rock star, mercurial frontman, and lovesick poet.
The source of Garcia's complexity can be traced back to his days as a student at Brown University, when he wrote, as he freely admits, "a lot of bad love songs." It was then that Garcia began to think seriously about making music for a living, despite the fact that his parents, especially his father, strongly advised against such a move. "I don't think any parent encourages their children to go into the music business," he says. "It's pretty high-risk." While Garcia's father was ultimately supportive of his decision, he didn't exactly understand it either. "My dad is a doctor in Tampa," he explains, "and all he really knows is education."
Following his graduation from Brown, Garcia took his Ivy League diploma and relocated to New York City. The city was on the cusp of a rock renaissance fomented by the Strokes and continued by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol, with whom Elefant would eventually share a manager. Garcia quickly plucked several players off the local live circuit: a guitarist called Mod, bassist Jeff James, and drummer Kevin McAdams. The fledgling band christened Elefant was signed by Manhattan indie Kemado almost as quickly as it was formed, undoubtedly due to the hysteria surrounding any and all things NYC-rock. "We had hardly played any shows," Garcia says, recalling the A&R feeding frenzy with an odd mix of excitement and regret. "We had basically been signed off this very rough demo, and so when we recorded [Elefant's debut full-length] Sunlight (Makes Me Paranoid), we didn't have much to go on. We wound up recording what we thought we should sound like. It was a very innocent record."
Unfortunately for Garcia and the rest of Elefant, the innocence didn't last long past Sunlight's release date. Perhaps because of its pedigree the frontman with model good looks, the guitarist with the stage name, the shared management with Interpol Elefant confounded critics and drew many lazy comparisons, mostly unfavorable, to the city's rock elite. Garcia, meanwhile, became blogger fodder with tales of one-night stands and brazen arrogance.
The harsh reaction to both Elefant and Garcia seemed strangely at odds with the album itself. Sonically, Sunlight was much more informed by British influences than Elefant's Manhattan contemporaries, most of whom seemed inspired by distinctly American sources like the Velvet Underground, Television, and Sonic Youth. And Garcia's songs, with names like "Annie" and "Esther," suggested naive college romances as opposed to the rumored predatory flings. During the tour in support of the album, that tension played out visibly onstage, with Garcia's rigid movements communicating genuine insecurity and aloofness, sometimes simultaneously.
The Black Magic Show, the band's forthcoming sophomore record, isn't exactly a neat resolution. Garcia claims the album "captures what we really are" after a year spent on the road exploring the band's sound and interpersonal dynamics. So it might come as some surprise that Magic is a far colder, more distant record than its predecessor. The sweet idealism of Sunlight occasionally shines through on songs like "Uh Oh Hello" and the wistful closer, "Don't Wait." But these moments are mostly eclipsed by a creeping cynicism, a thick gothic coating that obscures Garcia's earnestness. "We're big fans of high production," Garcia says. "We thought we could apply that West Coast [rock] sound [to what we're doing]." To achieve that goal, Garcia and company recorded in Los Angeles and recruited the biggest of the big West Coast rock producers in Don Gilmore (Linkin Park, Eve 6). Oddly and perhaps unintentionally The Black Magic Show's amped-up, detached sound is a strikingly frank portrayal of a band following a year of heavy touring and critical potshots. The album offers no pretense of amiability or band solidarity. Instead, there is only estrangement and confusion a dimming of the cheerful optimism on Sunlight. That sullen, sober outlook may not make for the most ingratiating or even insightful album, but there is an honesty that belies its superficiality. The truth, as it turns out, is rarely so seductive.
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