Click to hear: “Coffee Shop”
The first album by Elf Princess Gets a Harley knocks me out, over and over. It makes me laugh, it makes my heart leap, and in places it makes me a little weepy. Brandon Davis, a gifted songwriter and musician, is an iconoclastic performer whose Elf Princess project presents him as a bent hybrid of confessional poet, songsmith and populist entertainer.
This release collects 13 songs about the singer’s experiences with “girls.” Fittingly, Davis’ homey everyman’s voice — it has a flat, nasal quality —
is often joined by an ultra-feminine vocal courtesy of one of five “skirts” (as they’re credited) recruited for these recordings. The album’s loose, thrown-together vibe highlights the contrasts between Davis’ mostly mid- and down-tempo tunes, and between the two types of love songs he’s written. There are three celebrations — exuberant cheers for individual females (like “Coffee Shop,” which should be the feel-good hit of this summer). The other 10 love songs are sighs — sad, puzzled, haunted, angry or bruised reports from the front lines of sexual-personal relations. Collectively, the work is marked by humor, intelligence, and many moments of stunning musical grace.
Most tracks have sparse arrangements built around acoustic guitar or ukulele. Davis is usually a keen editor — the songs are exactly the length they need to be. For “Valentine’s Day,” he uses just a minute-and-a-quarter to develop a disarming picture of emotional nakedness.
In “Only Girl,” Davis plays he said/she said with mood. The guitar pattern conveys hope (though the singer sounds doubtful), and then the voice heartens — just as the guitar gives back a plaintive note. These juxtapositions create a poignant allure that reminds me of McCartney’s similarly shaded “And I Love Her.”
This and many of the other sigh songs are filled out with one or two well-chosen, richly rendered elements: a string of decorative riffs on electric guitar, a banner of synth, lovely backing vocals by Sydney Bourke (“Spirit World”), Laurel Munson (“Only Girl”), Mariah Bergeron (“John Hughes Ending”), Sena Phin (“Hobo Girlfriend”), and Aaron Hautula (“Favorite One”).
The best song here, “Fairy Tale,” is also the most sophisticated recording. It fastens Davis’ crystalline acoustic guitar, bass and drum tracks to boy-and-girl vocals and samples of ’60s bossa nova in a heady, swirling confection. It’s fun, it’s sweet-sad, and, like the best pop, it’s over before you want it to be.
Songs is concerned with the nuances of hope and loss. On such a personal record, Davis risks swamping us with self-involvement, but instead inspires us with intelligence and wit and a trove of gorgeous melodies sung in a voice both plain and performed. He’s a very good, cagey singer who uses lots of echo, syllable-stretching, hard r’s, and a handful of expressions (oh, you know, well, whoa, listen) as distancing devices. These stylized vocal gestures, as well as the humble uke, give the listener just the right amount of room to regard the singer’s private demons.
There is profound power in simple presentation connected to real feeling. In “Coffee Shop,” for example, Davis and Mandy Wheeler sing with such palpable pleasure that lines like “she’s sweeter than Italian soda” take on a joyous life of their own. When Elf Princess’ simplicity is disconnected from genuine emotion, the results are fun, but sound hollow. You end up hearing the song form itself as a vessel Davis is filling — say, a rockabilly raver (“That Kinda Girl Is Where It’s At”) or a ’50s-inflected Buddy Holly via Jonathan Richman tune (“The Buddhist Ways”).
The album’s somewhat tossed-off feel is partly a result of the fact that Davis records in his apartment under relatively crude conditions, but with super-slick software. The occasional hiss you hear isn’t a side effect of analog recording, but rather a sound effect Davis felt compelled to add as ballast against excessive sheen. He’s mimicking the limitations of the 4-track world — degrading the canvas — to make the music simultaneously bright and blurred.
Casey McCurry of Satellite Lot, a sound wizard in his own right, mastered the recordings like a true believer that somehow, in the best of all possible worlds, Songs About Girls might become the dazzling popular success it deserves to be.
Bollard music critic David Pence is the host of Radio Junk Drawer, heard Wednesday from 3 p.m.–5 p.m. on community radio station WMPG.