EL VY (Handily rhymes with ‘Hell Pie’) consists of Matt Berninger of The National, weepy indie-rock types and Brent Knopf of Menomena and Ramona Falls. It might be easy to cast aside the band as ‘the other band’, compared to the duo’s primary bands, each of which has been successful. Berninger, in particular has the weight of Boxer and High Violet, The National’s best albums, on his shoulders and it’s almost expected now for him to make a reliably solid album with his trademark self-depreciating lyrics intertwined with bitter jokes, which pops up on Return To The Moon in full on songs such as ‘I’m The Man To Be’, where he says ‘I’ll be the one in the lobby in the collared fuck me shirt / The green one’. But once you get past what are familiar lyrics from Berninger, there’s little here to push past old preconceptions of the secondary band. EL VY are fine, but they’re just fine.
EL VY are sometimes a harsher version of the National, but don’t see the word ‘harsh’ and imagine punk. The instruments are less subdued, like on their first single, ‘Return To The Moon’ and ‘Sleeping Light’, where Knopf’s influences come into play with the bright guitars that are occasionally distorted where the National’s would slide around in the background somewhere. And on ‘Sad Case’, the guitars are cock-rock swagger-worthy, something you wouldn’t expect for the Berninger, the introvert and the quiet muser. In this case, it shows that it isn’t Berninger and ‘the other guy’, because ‘the other guy’, Knopf provides some of the best moments on the album with his quirky instrumentation which contradict Berninger mumbling away into his notebook. Berninger lets down the album on his part, not using the side-project to dive into some mid-career experimentalism and decides to go along the same paths at the National did on their disappointing last album Trouble Will Find Me. He doesn’t change up his vocal style or his lyrics. If he didn’t want to change anything at all, why isn’t a Matt Berninger solo album on our doorstep. He doesn’t make use of the new leash on life Knopf gives him.
Occasionally Berninger comes up with some vivid imagery in amongst his throwaway lines. On the quiet, acoustic-led ‘Careless’ he sings ‘I’m staying under spider-web roads’ and ‘You’re riding a nightmare and you can’t go home’ on ‘Sleeping Light’, but for Berninger, his lyrics are suspiciously bare, with references to Didi Bloome (named after Minutemen vocalist D. Boon), the reviews his records have received in the past (‘I can’t even look at the reviews anymore / I score an 8.6 on fucking par 4’) on ‘I’m The Man To Be’, which is a cringe-fest of lyrics that shows Berninger from the perspective of a sad, lonely rock star in his hotel room. The old-school rock does little to raise the song beyond a lot of emotionally-dry self-awareness. And then when EL VY go for soft-punk on ‘Happiness, Missouri’, it doesn’t work because Berninger doesn’t have the voice for a dark, brooding punk song and Knopf’s clanky guitar lines clatter against the piano and snappy drums. The song is short, but it doesn’t feel like a rapid-fire song with Berninger spitting out his lines quickly, it just dies before the band can go anywhere new.
Knopf provides some moments of relief on Return To The Moon, like on ‘Careless’ and ‘Return To The Moon’ when his brighter instrumentation turns Berninger’s lyrics into a slighter happier version, but Return To The Moon is not something different on the side for Berninger or Knopf, it’s a logical extension of their primary bands that either shows a lack of inspiration or Berninger can’t do much else that groan over a moleskine. The pairing of the two makes sense: it isn’t exactly the surprise of Thom Yorke and Flea working together on Atoms For Peace. They make a good duo, but they haven’t gone an made something to surprise either fans. The National have been criticised heavily for being baseline indie-rock, but EL VY isn’t going to be doing Berninger any favours any time soon.
Funnel Recommends: Return To The Moon / No Time To Crank The Sun / Careless