Musicians can often cite a special first purchase that ignited their creative spark and confirmed that making music is what they want to do. In the case of Elephant, that purchase was a cheap keyboard. Amelia Rivas and Christian Pinchbeck met three years ago at a house party and a subsequent rendezvous in Peckham led to an entire demo EP being made with just a £10 Casio to assist them. To say this approach is lo-fi might be understating it.
Since then, they’ve added to their sonic palette for their debut LP. With the help of Andy Dragazis on production, the aim of Sky Swimming has been to expand but also to retain the rawness of their early recordings. It isn’t a pristine recording – there are plenty of songs where some layers seem rather overbearing and there are moments where eerie backing vocals sound as if they’ve been sampled (see Skyscraper). But it all, weirdly, adds to Elephant’s charm. It starts fairly breezily with Assembly, a highly focused and dreamy slice of indie pop, but from there on in it’s a hit and miss affair.
Elephant are at their best when they are able to strip things down to the bare essentials, for it is then the end result that some of their standout work is given room to breathe. The downbeat but spacious Shipwrecked sounds almost as expected based on its title – a sparse beat that crawls along and tremelo-induced strums of guitar act as the backing, allowing Rivas the limelight and her vocals and harmonies are immensely lush. Equally, Allured starts with her soft croon over some piano before it kicks in properly. It’s fair to say that she is the star of the show and manages to make some of these tracks rather more captivating than they have any right to be. Elusive Youth aims for the same high standard of beach pop that Metronomy perfected on The English Riviera but is too by-the-numbers to come close, yet her performance just about saves it from being skippable.
It’s clear that they have the know-how to make the best out of very little but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Torn Tongues has the potential to be a sparkling and sleek lo-fi disco tune but lacks the punch to make it stand out (not to mention a minute-long outro that shouldn’t have even come close to making the final edit), whilst Ants and Come To Me roll on by without much impact.
What it really lacks though is something that explodes from the speakers. It’s only when it’s a bit too late in the day that Elephant finally reveal their trump card. The limbery Shapeshifter is their last offering, with Rivas’ presence at its most magnetic when coupled with whimsical string arrangements. It’s so good. What could have the weaker tracks been like if they were more willing to sprinkle this sort of magic dust on them?
Sky Swimming is an album of many twists and turns, but the effectiveness of these flourishes varies wildly. Some tracks are certainly worth a repeat listen but, as a whole, it’s just not consistent enough. It’s not a record that can be filed under the ‘style over substance’ bracket, either; Elephant could be a fairly glamorous proposition, but they need to add new tricks to their aesthetic.