All The Real Girls: Elk City

Music Reviews All the Real Girls
All The Real Girls: Elk City

A band that sounds like a movie, All the Real Girls is an invention of Peter Donovan, a singer-songwriter who normally makes movies in his day job. On Elk City, he has assembled quite an eclectic group from bands like The Long Winters and Death Cab for Cutie, creating detailed soundscapes that echo the twisting narratives on this wonderful 12-song debut.

Make sure you make it through the first song, called “Las Cruces”—it’s not the best one here, and it doesn’t really fit the musical sensibilities on display. It’s a bit rollicking, with a heavy bass part and a guitar part that hints at a spaghetti western, not an indie film. All of the songs were inspired by a conversation Donovan had with an elderly woman in a bar who told him about unusual funeral rituals. (It explains why “Las Cruces” has so many spiritual references.)

Then, the Jordan River parts, and you get a faint glimmer of what makes All the Real Girls so special. Donovan writes and sings a bit like Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes with some of the deep guttural impositions of Elliott Smith. You hear hints of betrayal and scandal in Donovan’s voice, as though he has lived some of the stories he borrowed from the woman at the bar. I love how he has a line about “the Holy Ghost will pour the whiskey” and “if you get lost get down on your knees again” which gives life and limb to stories about death and the pains of life.

On “That Kind of Night,” you hear a similar richness in the storytelling, songs that make you sit up a little and wonder about the themes about love and loss. There’s a line about how a woman had a flower in her hair and “we all fell in love that night” that might remind you of a crush from high school or a picnic on a summer day. The writing is specific and descriptive. On “Lizzie” Donovan sings about someone seeing right through him. The goal, it seems, is to paint a picture of his life with the brush from the women he met, making you wonder if it is a biography or an autobiography (or both). The best music does that. When you hear an Elliott Smith song, you insert your own pain right into the narrative. Donovan sings about trying to “find peace of mind he lost so many years ago,” and you basically toast him right there and then.

It helps that the music is so expertly crafted. One of the key techniques has to do with the guitar playing. On “Elk City” the song, you almost sit back and laugh a little (if you know how to play) because that swirling figure is not exactly easy to pull off. On my first listen through, it really caught me by surprise, even though I’m not sure who played that part. “Those Shoes She Liked to Wear” also has strong electric guitar, all Jimi Hendrix fuzz and a sizzling vocal track at the end by Shelby Earl, another emerging artist with connections to Death Cab.

If there’s any slight complaint here, it’s that all of the songs talk about weary stories from the road, funeral dirges gone south, and follow a similar structure—detailed story, strong guitar figure, chorus, repeat. That’s not a major problem for five or six songs, but maybe when it is the formula on all 12. I kept listening, though—I wanted to see which solo they’d add at the end of “Somewhere Like TV” or how Donovan would resolve these stories or let them hang on a ledge. Maybe this is not always a foot-stomping hoedown, since there are so many songs about eating people alive and dealing with deep regrets, but by the end you feel like you were sitting there at the bar listening to the stories. The band is there to add some welcome theatrics.

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