I recall praising Elmaroe's-- efforts on his last EP, 'Sequences', when I critiqued it in March of this year. You can read the review here. Given my familiarity with his music, I expected that his firm grasp of the conventions of popular song writing would be the underlying strength of the recording. I was right, as always.
'Tiny Sounds' strikes me as a fitting title, if a little easily arrived at. It successfully captures the charming and pleasant persona that Liam Stokes - to deprive him of his incognito - seems to want to convey in his music and persona. I've always felt, in popular music at least, an artist is marketing their persona as much as their music. Would people be so interested in Oasis if the Gallagher bros. weren't such Neanderthals? Would Joanna Newsom have such a loyal following if she didn't act so adorably? Would Elmaroe have the appeal he does if he didn't tailor a fitting persona for his music and vice versa? No, exactly.
The first song, 'Gentle Charms', reveals an emerging trend of titles that are very inviting in their suggestion of all things cute and diminutive. They go hand-in-hand with the nature of the music, but it comes across as formulaic. Even the name Elmaroe is a diabolically subtle engenderer in the mind of all things cute and pure. Elmaroe: makes you think of Elmo, does it not? Elm trees, perchance? And 'roe' conjures up visions of prancing deer. It is masterful word-craft, and its success is why I adopted the pseudonym Ewok Furbyson for my solo outing.
I digress. The musical material is placed chiefly on the delicate shoulders of the acoustic guitar, the typically quiet nature of which probably prompted Stokes to christen the EP 'Tiny Sounds', which is logical enough. The songs are arranged for voice and guitar (although piano takes the reigns for the final track), with occasional support from extra voices, guitars and strings for the obligatory enlargement of choruses. I had misgivings about this as the instrumentation on the last release, with instruments rapidly entering and dropping out, created an on-going interest against a backdrop of rather plain chords and melodies, which I thought was one of its greatest strengths. Two of the four songs here appeared on the last EP and they certainly survived the stripping-back process, but I wouldn't say these new arrangements are better than their predecessors; they are simply newer. Music is enriched by the existence of both versions.
First track, 'Gentle Charms' is somewhat of an old favourite. Hearing this acoustic rendition takes me back to when I heard Stokes play it live oh so long ago (hyperbole: it was actually about 6 months). This version is dolled up with 'Ah's in the first chorus and electric guitar with delay effect, that other great staple of what is generally agreed to be "epic", in the second. On the first couple of listens I thought the electric guitar blundered in like a bull into a china shop (to use a completely original simile) and ruined the mood of tranquility, but now I realise that the song, as a whole, has a gentle crescendo to it, and adding the guitar was a masterstroke of understated yet effective arrangement. It adds drama to this otherwise mild-mannered song. Obviously Stokes cannot resist the allures of arrangement, just like I can't resist the allures of schoolgirls.
Onto track two, 'History'. Guitar and voice again; the guitar is strummed, a little too hard in fact; and the strings vibrate too vigorously against the frets, creating an annoying, extraneous, anti-musical noise. The Bb pedal in the bass (register of the guitar) and the upper voice on the D string - traversing up and down the three topmost notes of the major scale - progress with tedium. Nor can I extrapolate much meaning from the lyrics; the first verse goes as follows, "Separate rooms with little mattresses / I see my life unfolding now / Behind these walls of hollow plasterboard / We're staring at each other's eyes". Those sound like rough living conditions to me. You have my sympathy.
The string arrangement blaring out on the chorus heralds the realisation that Stokes has now utilised three of the most overused cliches in pop song arrangement, these being background vocalists' 'ahs', electric guitar with delay and/or reverb and simple string arrangements. I detest the lazy way in which the bowed strings are seen by many pop musicians, as something to be flippantly added to a mix to add what is presupposed to be momentous emotional weight. To listen to genuinely interesting use of the bowed strings in a popular context, see Esperanza Spalding's 'Chamber Music Society'. Although it certainly isn't the strongest track here, I don't wish to write off 'History' too hastily. Interest is added in the second verse by guest singer Wil Frost, who brings a new character and inflection to the vocals, which is effective when bracketed by Stokes' voice. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.
Track three, 'Sequences' - the best of all the Elmaroe songs of whose existence I am aware - gets the EP back on solid footing. It is a volcano of emotion, a tornado of nostalgia, an earthquake of irresistibly catchy pentatonic melodies; it is a tsunami of musical nicety. It begins on the minor chord at the mediant and, after a couple more visits, resolves down to the tonic, which is simple enough, but oh so effective. The guitar playing is at its best on this track, particularly in the second verse, in which mildly syncopated arpeggios create a quasi-groove, which is my favourite moment of the entire EP; it is uplifting, magical, and joyous. Throughout, the guitar plays a clearly defined bass line and upper voice with its own melodic character, over which Stokes sings his best lyrics, with delicate backing vocals (I believe also sung by Stokes) which adds to the track until the line "If you're in love with me" is, I find, robbed of its warmth by the slightly forced delivery of the Stokes doppelganger, a minor scuff on an otherwise beautiful musical creation.
Final track, the slow-paced 'Letting Go', mulls us peacefully towards the EP's conclusion. It begins with some ambient noise, possibly/probably running water - gently running, of course. Piano provides the simple tonic, subdominant, dominant-oriented accompaniment, with some right hand melodies which achieve pleasanthood but never reach nirvana. There is a string arrangement again, but it fails to provoke me into fits of rage like track two's. Its subdued delivery suits the mood of the song, whereas in 'History' it struck me as being shoehorned in to make the chorus grander because, you know, a chorus has to be grand, right? -- I shall stop this second tirade on the criminality of glib string arrangements while I still can. The note Stokes chooses to end the EP on is one of quietude, as opposed to a hard-hitting number; it paddles through its four minute existence, blissfully ignorant of superior beings outside of its limited but charming scope.
On the whole I would say 'Tiny Sounds' fails to match the quality of its antecedent. Theory: there is an opportune time for an artist to do an acoustic release, which is after they have firmly established their "sound" in the public's collective ear canal. Nirvana did that unplugged gig for MTV and then, if I remember correctly, everyone expostulated in the following manner: "Bro, they aren't just a dumb grunge band, they can play acoustic guitars and those songs also work at a lower volume, sans distortion. I have seen a whole new side to them. Wow, what a great band, with a charismatic singer. I wish him a long and happy career, don't you, bro?" But, for a little-known artist to release an EP when trying to get a foothold among the landslides of amateur musicians ready to do morally reprehensible things for a slot on the BBC Introducing show, an understatement (such as an acoustic CD) is not the strongest firearm. Of course this entire point rests upon the assumption that Liam Stokes wants to top charts and festival bills with his Elmaroe project. I assumed that he did as his songs are so radio-friendly, which leads me to my next point. Check out the next paragraph for expansion.
The frustrating aspect of the style of Elmaroe's creations is the simplicity; these songs are simplicity themselves. I just want to hear a couple of accidentals; or fewer pentatonic phrases; I want a song to journey far away from its starting point, rather than going for a stroll in the garden; a song of wider parameters; of rhythmic ingenuity. I don't think I heard one accidental, apart from possibly a raised fifth in a leading tone chord, to avoid the nasty diminished, which makes me feel sad. At the same time as this frustrates me for its small outlook, I can't help but be charmed by the best of this simple song writing, i.e., 'Golden Charms' and 'Sequences', so it has its place I suppose. I just think Liam Stokes is a talented man, and he could be responsible for far greater musical material than this, nice as this is. This is a worthwhile and eminently listenable release, but fails to live up to the 'Sequences' EP.