Album Reviews

Ella Guru – The First Album

(banana) UK release date: 9 August 2004

Well, we all know what to expect here don’t we? Of course it must be the latest skitter-pop madness from the “Cosmic-Scouse” movement. This band have called themselves Ella Guru, after the song from eccentric psychedelic legend Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica. And they’re from Liverpool. Surely they dress in orange jumpsuits and hurl jelly at each other when playing live. Perhaps they sample the noise from fridges sucking shut and loop it over jingly jangly choruses that recall more famous Liverpudlian greats. Heck, they probably even sing about cats.

Well, we’d be wrong. Although they do sing about cats.

With the strange sense that they are wilfully defying expectation, Ella Guru – sumptuous and delicate – are closer to the rich, warm soundscapes of Yo La Tengo and Lambchop than the wackiness of The Zutons or The Coral.

Even the song titles are deliberately misleading. This Is My Rock And Roll is so fragile that it sounds like it would shatter if turned up to 11. I Got My Mojo Working turns out to be about a cat called Mojo, and not just any cat – a “working cat”. But Ella Guru are not just here to smugly titter at their own wordplay, they are here to invite us in to a voluptuously melodic world of gentle wonders.

Like Lambchop, there are far more musicians at work in Ella Guru that it first appears. Eight of them to be precise. The slow build of the opening track, Noisy Insects, begins with a sparse echoing background, but is soon awash with flute, piano and Kate Walsh’s sweet backing vocals. Her voice is reminiscent of Emma Pollock from The Delgados, managing to be both schoolgirl-twee and genuinely haunting. The mood changes for the jaunty and countrified They Called For Us, a catchy slice of Nashville.

Lead John Yates seems uncomfortable with the Americana and Lambchop comparisons: “I don’t think we sound like them at all. You have a pedal-steel in a band and immediately people think you’re alt. country.” However, despite his protestations, it’s hard not to place some of their tunes firmly across the Atlantic. Yates’ hushed vocals can sound like Kurt Wagner’s conversational style mixed with the frailty of Sparklehorse‘s Mark Linkous. But, to suggest that Ella Guru are some kind of Yankee pastiche band is hugely unfair. They are not, for example, Gomez.

Instead of conjuring up images of home cooked apple-pies and bluesmen on porches, Ella Guru create something more transcendental, yet still manage to find beauty in the mundane. They are “playing blues to a bird on a mountain”, and putting on “All Things Must Pass by George Harrison“. In Park Lake Speakers they “listen for the door in case your brother walks past”, and can be found “heading for the night bus”, all wrapped up in layered vocals and delicious instrumentation.

Ella Guru also have an unexpected ace up their sleeve. They have managed to coax a couple of brilliant guest vocals from The Mothers Of Invention‘s Jimmy Carl Black. Giving an edge to the most abrasive song on the album, My Favourite Punk Tune, Black then treats us to a strange poem recital. However, it is the superb and moving rendition of On a Beach, from Ella Guru’s debut EP Three Songs From Liverpool, that really hits pay dirt. His world-weary voice lends the song some Johnny Cash-style melancholy that is utterly captivating.

Consistently tuneful, enchanting and magical, Ella Guru are a soft breeze of crisp air amongst a slew of over-rated guitar bands. They manage to be both intense but light-hearted, complex but uncluttered. Ella Guru are an unblemished polished gem of a band that lure you into their hazy soundscapes, but don’t expect them to dress in gorilla suits and play dustbin lids anytime soon.

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More on Ella Guru
Ella Guru – The First Album
Ella Guru @ Water Rats, London