False Cathedrals (Revelation)

The most remarkable thing about elliott's 1998 debut, U.S. Songs, was its packaging. The disc came enclosed in a grayish silver slipcase that folded open to reveal two pristine booklets with liner notes and beautiful photographs. It almost didn't matter that the loud guitars and whiny vocals weren't as evocative as the packaging -- U.S. Songs looked good resting on the coffee table. The band's follow-up, False Cathedrals, is no less remarkable in terms of its artwork. Featuring a sketch of an enormous wooden bridge on the slipcase, False Cathedrals has cover art that's equally exquisite and strangely appropriate, given the title. This time around, though, the band has a more distinctive sound -- the most obvious difference being the extensive use of piano and electronic samples that nicely juxtapose the more typical loud-to-quiet guitars. Perhaps recording the album in a pre-Civil War warehouse/studio with wooden floors (great for sharpening the bass and drums) in its hometown of Louisville had something to do with the ambiance the group achieves.

Produced by Tobias Miller (his debut, although he's worked behind the boards on albums by Fiona Apple, Korn, and the Wallflowers), False Cathedrals opens with "Voices," a track that builds slowly, after commencing with a soft piano melody. The biggest limitation at this point in the band's brief career is singer-guitarist Chris Higdon. Even on the album's best songs -- Radiohead-inspired ballads such as "Blessed by Your Own Ghost," "Calvary Song," and "Lipstick Stigmata" -- Higdon's thin vocals, which often fall into a monotonous drone, can't match the tension of the music. Higdon simply sounds too indifferent when he's making obscure references to restless spirits, singing angels, and mating rituals. When the guitars get cranked up on "Dying Midwestern" and "Carving Oswego," Higdon, who often sounds too much like the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, really struggles to be heard -- he's a far less expressive emo crooner than someone like Sunny Day Real Estate's Jeremy Enigk or the Promise Ring's Davey Vonbohlen.