Elk City is not a new band. It formed in 1997, and members Renee LoBue and Ray Ketchem played together before that in Melting Hopefuls. However, as the album’s title suggests, New Believers represents a rebirth of sorts for this New York City-based indie-rock outfit. This album is the band’s first after a major shake-up in its ranks. Guitarist and co-vocalist Peter Langland-Hassan left the group, replaced by ex-Luna guitarist Sean Eden. This exchange benefits Elk City in two distinct ways: first because Eden is a rather good guitar player, and second because Eden lacks the lead-singer aspirations of the guy he replaced. Langland-Hassan and Lobue previously took turns on lead vocals — a lot of tracks were duets. But now Lobue has taken full control of lead vocal duties, and that’s a good thing, because she’s a far more capable vocalist than Langland-Hassan ever was. Furthermore, the addition of bassist Barbara Endes (formerly of the Lovelies) has allowed LoBue to trade in her Fender piano-bass for a wider array of keyboard sounds, adding depth and variety to the band’s sound.
The result is an impressive and varied LP from this trio turned quartet. The Neko Case-ish “Silver Lawyers” and the Cowboy Junkies-esque “Los Cruzados” (with its irresistible “Hallelujah” chorus) are tinged with alt-country, and “Magic Door” and the gentle, lilting “Melody” are quirky, whimsical pop. But for me, the best tracks are the more up-tempo numbers. “Totally Free” starts with a grunge-y funk grove that evolves into a full-scale rave-up; “You Got Me” is deft, piano-driven power-pop; and opener “Cherries in the Snow” is a bona fide indie-rock masterpiece. It turns out LoBue can belt just as well as she can croon. When they put their minds to it, Elk City can be a formidable rock ‘n’ roll band.
A few tracks seem a bit underdeveloped — “My Type of Criminal” and “Nighttime” are intriguing, but their sparse arrangements don’t utilize the talents of the band and may be better suited for a LoBue solo album. But the bulk of New Believers is fully realized, well-crafted music. Elk City has been kicking around for almost ten years, but this a clearly a band with newly sparked chemistry and a revitalized sense of purpose.