One can easily associate the term "gentlemen" with Chicago's The Elements of Style. Vocalist/guitarist Aaron Koss - in the footsteps of literate, yet troubled romantics like Morrissey or The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser (and even to a local extent, the Smoking Popes' Josh Caterer) - winds his elongated vowels and book-smart delivery around blissful, jangly indie-pop provided by guitarist Brian Bonenberger and the rhythm section of Chris Bijalba and Jimmy Rhein that is at a constant simmer. These are songs that demand the listener to dream, swoon, take chances or fall in love but they all act as warm invitations rather than authoritative commands. Koss retains the innocence of someone who's still learning about the dichotomy of relationships, but with a voice that calmly reassures himself, and the songs' various protagonists, that he knows more than he's letting on.
Early on this year's Take Care Always and Have a Night Ahead (the band's second proper full-length), Koss solidifies the album's themes: Doubt, leading to reflection, which in turn creates self-awareness. "I wanted more / than I thought I had to want," he explains on "Take Care," mentally avoiding the proverbial eggshells. Elsewhere, like on the pulsating opener "Earn Your Love," he at first recognizes a need for reassurance ("tell me I'm worth your time / That I am good / That I deserve all that I have"), only to coyly self-depricate himself a verse later with admissions like "I am vain / I deserve all that I get." Throughout this record, Koss is constantly walking the line between nursing his wounds and picking at them, in cunning fashion. Go too far either way, and an album can become predictable, not building any sort of sympathy from listener to artist. But Koss' approach constantly keeps one guessing - and almost craving - where his next line is going to take us.
Mixed by Larry Crane - whose resume includes Elliott Smith, The Decemberists and Jenny Lewis - at Jackpot! in Portland, OR, Take Care Always is the tightest and most original the band has ever been. "No One's Ever Going to Notice" benefits from Bijalba and Rhein's locked-in delivery, Koss' acrobatic falsetto and guitars from he and Bonenberger that alternate patterns perfectly. Released earlier this year as a preliminary single, "I Know That I Can Find A Way (To Offend You)" stays true to the group's dynamic while improving exponentially upon the arsenal of power they carry from tune to tune. Bonenberger and Koss' guitars are pushed into a fiery twinkle, while Rhein and Bijalba's rhythms midway through make for an unexpectedly massive rumble. While it could've easily been a B-side from The Strokes' Is This It-era, it also doesn't carry that band's heavy weight of detachment. The Elements of Style are flesh and blood, first and foremost; the group's magnetism is just an added bonus.
Late in the album, the one-two punch of "Thoughts" and "Where Did I Go?" rumble with tom-heavy percussion, but also manage their space well, easing up where appropriate. Closing out with the pop/rock shimmy of "Man On A Mission," Take Care Always ends on a forceful note, with Koss nearly finding what he was looking for throughout the previous nine tracks: A purpose to move forward. He sounds fully realized delivering his final yelp, and as listeners, we want to go back to the beginning right away to hear again how the journey led him here.
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