In the summer of 2012 Toronto’s Jonathan Rogers began recording his solo music under then moniker Elsa, named after his brother’s pet cat. Over the years Elsa collected more members and grew into a proper band while releasing two EPs and an album along the way. Now as Elsa goes their separate ways, they have released one last album of unreleased songs recorded between 2015 and 2016. It was during that same period that I first came across this band and was struck by Jonathan‘s earnest and vulnerable vocals and the band’s breezy sounding music that seemed to stake out a middle ground somewhere between Elliot Smith and modern bands like Real Estate.
The album cover the depicts a woman sitting on her front steps and deep in her thoughts staring off into space. You could imagine all kinds of inner conflict going through her head and that inner monologue is precisely where frontman Jonathan Rogers takes us over the next ten songs. Opener “Every Now and Again” starts with gentle guitar strumming but with chords and lyrics that betray an undercurrent of tension and uncertainty. When the full band comes in and Jonathan croons “the way that you do” we’re taken back to sunny indie pop territory. The music mirrors the contrasting emotions across the song with some interesting vocal effects that help this one stand out. The lackadaisical “Respite” follows and adds hints of indie rock grit to Elsa‘s otherwise gentle jangle. This is followed the true centerpiece of this album, the majestic and yearning song “For a Change“. Rogers sings the verses like someone is sleeping in the next room, but this gives the song a intimate feel as if he’s pouring his heart out directly to you, the listener. The ascending chord progressions offer some hope that the change Rogers sings about will be for the better, despite the melancholy undertones. When he sings “I’m ready to go” it’s hard not to wonder if that’s a reference to Elsa parting ways after this album and makes this song just a little bit sadder. Contrary to its title, “No Fun” is an upbeat slice of indie pop powered by a driving beat and guitars jangling circles around each other. Rogers follows the Morrissey tradition of writing depressing songs to happy music, this time lamenting his loneliness, self doubt, and being penniless among other things. The lyrics may be detailing his misery, but Rogers offers up one of the album’s strongest vocal performances and the cheery music helps to overcome any leftover pessimism. “The Pond” is a hard left left turn from the rest of the album. The music has a loose jazz-like feel and Rogers croons like he’s singing live from a coffeehouse. It’s a soothing comedown song, but can’t help feeling out of place in the track list. Chiming guitar notes open the next album highlight, “Endless Wait“.
There’s a definite twee pop vibe throughout that gives this a timeless sound right down to the modest guitar solo. Rogers pleads “when will my love come for me” in a way that only the hopelessly lovesick can. Elsa follows up with the surging “Validation“. From the twinkling guitar intro the band builds in confidence before reaching a triumphant climax. A bigger band might’ve called this a guitar anthem, but Elsa were always too humble for that. Nevertheless, the band’s command of dynamics and a vocal performance that matches the band’s great heights make this another thrilling track. “Temperance St” takes on a Latin flavor as Rogers sings nostalgically about returning to his old home. Like “The Pond“, it’s interesting to hear Elsa incorporate other styles into their signature sound and this one works quite well. Similarly “Tailored Heartbeat” is Elsa trying on a heavier shoegaze style with Rogers saccharine vocals floating above grime covered guitars. Again broadening their boundaries works well for them and it’s a shame the song doesn’t make it to the three minute mark. The final song “Passing Time” is essentially Rogers accompanied by a gently picked guitar and singing just above a whisper. It’s perhaps fitting to end Elsa‘s final album as the band began with Jonathan Rogers on his own.
Although it’s sad to see another talented group break up, they were kind enough to leave us this parting gift and let us know that they went out on top of their form. Elsa‘s self titled final album is the culmination of their strengths including some of their most mature songwriting and a few teasing glimpses of directions they could’ve taken had they only continued. They leave behind a impressive discography that hopefully sees a little more deserved recognition in the years ahead.
Highlights: For a Change, No Fun, Endless Wait, Validation
For Fans Of: Real Estate, Swimming Tapes, Beach Fossils