Taking a look back, Elway's debut Delusions was a solid start, but left a lot to be desired. I bought the album without any prior listens because of the fantastic album art (worth a gander) and the band's Red Scare relations. Though slightly miffed that the vinyl copy didn't come with a digital download or CD edition – come on! – I listened with open ears. It showed a lot of promise. Songs like "Whispers in a Shot Glass" and "Kristina's Last Song" had the memorable, gang vocal sing-alongs of then labelmates the Menzingers, and the album kept a steady pace, without any of the soft acoustic follies of most debuts. But the general feeling the album presented was of a band holding back. Most of the chord progressions tread the line of generic teenage garage punk and many a song lacked any notable melodies or guitar leads. In fact, aside from "Whispers" and "Kristina," I can't really imagine myself singing along with any of the songs, or even remembering any of the lyrics. There were moments, though: the finale of "Kristina's Last Song" was unashamedly rousing, catchy and vengefully fun; "Fuck no, I won't miss you. I've got some other shit to do. Goddamn, it's about time for me to get on with my life. Dust off your shoes son, we're going out to have some fun. It's all good now." In those moments, I could see there was greatness peaking out, and I figured that these guys would really capture it on their follow-up.
That just didn't happen. Leavetaking is essentially Delusions Part Two. While it's not a step back and certainly a record worth a listen, the band didn't seem to make any progression whatsoever.
The album begins with "The Great Divorce," which provides the stark contrast of the soft opening with a quick shift into skate-punk speed. Musically, it's emotive and moving, but the message is cringeworthy. Right away, the band is touching on my pet peeve in alternative music – atheism. Now, I'm not by any means offended by anti-religious dialogue. I am all for open discussion and diverse opinions, and I know that music is a place where ideologies are given at high volume, but the consistent trend in punk rock as a backlash against religion has gotten increasingly stale. We get it. You don't believe in God. Reminding the listeners how foolish you think it is to subscribe to Christianity is becoming almost as annoying as Christian praise music. Aside from the admittedly clever line "And when she prays, it sounds like a mad girl's love song," it comes off as a little flat start to the album.
Ideologies aside, "The Great Divorce" is still a passable, quick opener to Leavetaking. I let the pet peeve slide–I know that a lot of people don't share my distaste for theological discussion. However, immediately when the chords to the second song, "Salton Sea" began, I groaned out loud. The progression falls somewhere in the local teenage opener range, and points to a glaring inadequacy that frequently comes back throughout all of Elway's work: the lack of an original take on a tired genre. Punk music has never been a genre that prides itself on technical prowess, but in a time when such a vast amount of material is readily available via the internet, punk bands need to have an X factor. There is a necessity in something intrinsically defining the music to develop a cult following in such a small, sparsely populated fan field. I know this certainly applies to all music, but somehow it always seems more desperately accurate in this music scene. Lyrics, harmonies, lead guitar lines–Christ, anything to separate from the pack.
Like Delusions, there are moments on this record where we see a unique Elway take form, but there aren't enough of those moments and most of the time it feels like I'm listening to a band playing half-hearted cover songs of '90s skatepunk bands. The band's one distinctive, repeated tool used throughout both albums appears on "Salton Sea" and continues to irritatingly pop back: the music drops out before the fourth beat and all we're left with is what's supposed to be a clever vocal end of a stanza. Occasionally, this will work in the right context, but hearing it over and over again on this album gives the impression of a bad stand-up comic, setting up scenarios for ultimately forgettable punch lines. The set up, the joke, the "ba da ting!" Lyrically, these moments just aren't strong enough to carry such an emphatic stop.
Singer Tim Browne has highs and lows, vocally and lyrically. Most of the record, he resembles a passable Dan Andriano, with a little less flexibility. There are moments when he just can't quite give the vocals the power necessary and it really scales back the emotional magnitude of the songs. This is made all the more strange by the few times on the record he gives his 100 percent and delivers an important line with a Banner Pilot-esque gravelly yell. When Browne gives us these deliveries, I'm forced to ask myself "Why not on the rest of the album?"
Thematically, the band stay on the tried and true areas of booze, being on the road and religion. There's nothing inherently wrong with the focus–these topics are for punk music what love and dancing are for pop. But as with the chord progressions of most of the songs, a lot of the lyrics barely scrape the surface on anything or give us a unique look. On "Prophetstown," Browne sings "getting sick of all the drinking, getting sicker every day". The themes are present, but only in the "Idiot's Guide to Writing Punk Lyrics" way, which is upsetting because of those flickers of creative genius heard occasionally.
However, I'd be remiss not to admit that these flickers grow a bit more prominent later in Leavetaking. On my first listen, the first four or five songs felt like fillers, which made me dread the end of the album–the last few songs before the closing finale are always the worst. I was surprised to discover that the best songs on here (and possibly of any release this month) were those two songs: "Ariel" and "There is a Line." "Ariel" is an unashamedly nostalgic song about longing for a romantic interest from one's past. The chorus carries the most memorable melody of any of the songs: "Ariel, I hope this finds you smiling." Browne cleverly works through a topic that can easily fall tacky, which makes the lyrical mediocrity of most of the rest of the album seem all the more underwhelming. On "There Is A Line," the opening lead guitar line sounds unique and nearer to the Get Up Kids than anything else Elway have played up to that point. This theme continues with the final song, "Patria Mia (Room 20)," making these last two seem like a breath of fresh air (though the closing gang vocals are a direct ripoff of Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train"; no joke). Again, this begs the question, "Why not the rest of the album?"
Ultimately, Leavetaking will probably be beloved by the punk scene for its brash unwillingness to try anything new for most of its running time. I should add: this is not a terrible album. It keeps a good pace and I enjoyed multiple aspects of it. It just lacks that X factor that keeps me replaying stuff like the Menzingers. Just like their debut Delusions, Elway continue to give us sparks of something great, but not at a rate adequate to carry an entire album. I guess there's always the next one.