The Elwins Rock the Fox

Written By: Alexander Draper

Edited By: Betty Meng

The Elwins with Smash Boom Pow & Sex With Strangers @ The Fox Cabaret, February 17, 2015

The Elwins are a Toronto band who just released their second full-length album, Play For Keeps. They performed at The Fox Cabaret in Vancouver on February 17, 2015, as part of an international tour promoting their new album. The Elwins are set apart by their use of the pop music genre to create a positive experience for their audience. The concert was orchestrated to promote a comfortable atmosphere that encouraged the audience to have fun.

The Elwins performed at The Fox Cabaret. Most of the audience was standing close to the stage, creating a more intimate connection between them and the band. The band members were energetic performers and seemed genuinely enthused to be there. They smiled and danced effortlessly throughout the performance. The comfort with which they performed helped ease the audience, and connected them with the band.

The Elwins’ delightsome demeanours and toe-tapping tunes are reminiscent of early rock and roll acts, such as Buddy Holly and The Beatles. Their instrumentation even parallels The Beatles, with two guitarists and a bassist, one of whom occasionally plays keyboard, all who sing, and a drummer. Most of The Elwins’ songs can be described in the same way. They emphasize catchy melodies that are supported by chords, typically played on guitar. There are four beats for every bar, and are driven by consistent drum beats, with bass drum on beat one and snare on beat three. They follow the classic song form of verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus. The verses are quieter and more sparsely orchestrated than the choruses, giving more focus to the catchier, and generally higher, chorus melodies. They are written in major keys, with very few chromatic notes.

The Elwins’ concluded their concert with their latest single, “So Down Low,” which epitomizes their song-writing style. The song is written in a major key in 4/4 time and starts with solo guitar playing the chorus chords. After one progression, the vocals start with the line “So down low” along with the drums playing closed hi hat on the off beats. After eight bars, the melody repeats with different lyrics, and the addition of a second guitar line, bass guitar, and snare drum playing eighth notes. After another eight bars, the chorus starts. The chorus is almost exactly the same as the introduction except the melody is sung one octave higher, and the instrumentation is more rhythmically dense. This chorus is only half the length of the introduction and repeats the lyrics sung in the first eight bars.

Everything about the song is designed to make the listener feel comfortable. It is especially engineered for first time listeners. We are introduced to the song one part at a time, to make sure we understand everything before moving on to something new. First, the lyrics to the song’s hook are revealed in the title before the song even starts. Then the song begins with the chorus, but presented as the verse. We expect the verse to be sung at the beginning of the song, and to have a lighter sound, giving it less importance than the chorus. Because verses are presented as being less important, we feel comfortable not knowing them. By putting the chorus at the beginning of the song in the context of a verse, the song teaches the listener the chorus. Because of this, when the listener first hears the chorus, it is already familiar.

While generally intended to feel familiar, “So Down Low” frustrates listeners’ expectations by deviating from typical song form in two places. The first verse comes after the first chorus, instead of at the beginning of the song, and the bridge immediately follows the second verse, instead of after a chorus. It has a chorus/chorus/verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus form. While one variation happens at the beginning of the song, because it is arranged in a way that is characteristic of a verse, the listener does not realize anything is amiss. The second variation, the transition from the second verse, is intended to surprise.

The verses are more subdued than the high-energy choruses, with lower, wandering melodies, and less aggressive timbres. Before each chorus, “oh” is sung in a rising melody, while the accompaniment moves from the subdominant chord to the dominant. This use of the dominant chord creates the expectation of resolution, suggesting to the listener that the chorus will follow, which is what happens at the end of the first verse. However, at the end of the second verse, it instead moves to the bridge. At this point in the song, the audience is already very comfortable, and expectations are well established; The Elwins take advantage of this by presenting something new. Unlike the form variance at the beginning of the song, which can easily pass by unnoticed, this change is meant to be noticeable. While it may create slight discomfort for the listener, it does not occur until about two thirds of the way into the song. Its purpose is to keep the song interesting. Unlike the introductory chorus, which makes the song familiar, it is meant to create something unfamiliar. The bridge also introduces the only chromatic notes in the song, making it even more unexpected. The bridge transitions to the chorus with a variation on the “oh” melody that was sung before, while still moving from the subdominant to the dominant, suggesting the coming chorus.

The final chorus is even more energetic than the preceding choruses, with an additional synthesizer line added, and denser drum rhythms. The song then ends in its most comfortable place, with several repetitions of the line “So down low.” Throughout the three minute, four second song, the line “So down low” is sung twelve times. It is always sung to the same melody, except for the final time where the rhythm is stretched, but the notes stay the same. This establishes familiarity. By the end of the song, the listener feels well accustomed to the hook, creating a positive emotional response whenever it is heard.

Much like many before them, The Elwins are not revolutionaries. They are instead, masters of their craft. Every element of their performance at The Fox Cabaret worked in unison to create a fun, carefree experience for their audience. As is evidenced by “So Down Low,” their music is written to create this experience, by feeling familiar, while still including elements of surprise.

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About Alex

I am a composer, electroacoustic musician, and developer living in Vancouver. I play in an electro-pop band, compose for chamber ensembles, and design video games and websites.