Letting their hair down

Brent Knopf from Ramona Falls (far left) and The National's Matt Berninger are EL VY.
Brent Knopf from Ramona Falls (far left) and The National's Matt Berninger are EL VY.PHOTO: HOSTESS ASIA

Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf have fun as EL VY

EL VY is the collaborative project between The National's Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf from Ramona Falls and, formerly, Menomena.

Given Berninger's lofty position in American indie rock hierarchy, it is inevitable that any music he makes outside his main gig would be compared with The National's critically acclaimed brand of moody, contemplative rock.

So, it is such a surprise to hear the near-convivial and certainly playful album's early tracks. Album opener Return To The Moon (Political Song For Didi Bloome To Sing, With Crescendo) is a jaunty tune, driven along by funk-lite, Afropop rhythms. Harking back to familiar haunts, Berninger, known for his trademark baritone, hits an unusually high pitch while singing about places in his native Ohio.

  • INDIE ROCK

  • RETURN TO THE MOON

    EL VY

    4AD

    4/5 stars

I'm The Man To Be is darkly humorous, a sleazy pseudo-rap about a character Berninger has described in the press release as a "self-aggrandising rocker alone in a hotel room". While the lyrics describe the protagonist's sexual shenanigans, you wonder if the singer is also taking a dig at himself when he sings: "I can't even look at reviews anymore/I score an 8.6 on a f***ing par four", a reference, perhaps to the effusive praise The National usually gets from the music press.

This album is Berninger letting his hair down - literally, too, for the bearded frontman has been letting his blond locks grow out recently. As if to underscore this point, there is a whole series of goofy videos that the duo have put on YouTube featuring Berninger jumping on a trampoline and doing silly dance moves, not unlike Drake's memebaiting Hotline Bling dance.

On the rest of the album, multiinstrumentalist and producer Knopf, responsible for the music, criss-crosses moods and genres. The arrangements are fluid and rarely straightforward, with plenty of breaks and skittering beats in each song, whether it is Silent Ivy Hotel's kitsch-horror touches or Sad Case and its guitar and drum attacks.

Return To The Moon is almost a concept album in the way that Berninger makes several references to influential 1980s Californian punk band Minutemen. "I'd never been so alone/Till I read that the Minutemen were dead," he sings on It's A Game. The two characters who appear in all 11 songs, Didi Bloome and Michael, were named after members of the pioneering band.

Singapore, where Berninger has performed twice with The National, gets a shoutout of sorts in I'm The Man To Be: "I'm a hanging happy sock tonight/My hotel's on the Katong (MRT?) line."

EL VY might not share The National's dour reputation, nor be similarly nominated for the Grammys, but Berninger's first foray out of his day job is no less affecting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Letting their hair down'. Print Edition | Subscribe