The most maddening thing about rootsy pop/rock guys The Literary Greats is just how sneaky they are. They stroll through song after song (three albums’ worth, since 2007) like they’re just there to have fun, smiling the whole damn time, even when the song’s this deceptively intricate, multi-faceted chunk of brilliant songcraft disguised as a low-key roots-pop tune. You can listen along, smiling yourself, and then it’ll hit you: “Hey, wait…what the hell are they doing, there? Oh, wow.”
Seriously, I hit that moment at least a half-dozen times each time I see the band play live or listen to one of their albums. What they play sounds like it should be pretty simple stuff, but frontman/songwriter/guitarist Brandon Elam, guitarist/backing vocalist Taylor Lee, bassist Darin Lee, and drummer Chris Ginsbach (and, on the albums, keyboardist Kris Becker, who’s since left to go solo) deftly layer so many subtle little touches that they transform the songs into these dense compositions. Think of ’em as playing the countrified equivalent of Pet Sounds, and you won’t be far off.
It helps, too, that Elam’s one of the sharpest, most engaging songwriters working around this city right now (in my opinion, anyway) — his songs are beautifully poetic, worldly, catchy as hell, and smart, all at once. See “Thundercloud to Peru,” “The Black Bee,” or “Coffee and Friends” (among others) for proof. The guy has a way with words that’s down-to-earth but still ridiculously evocative.
I should note, by the way, that it’s not really fair to pigeonhole the Greats as a “roots-rock” band — while that’s the foundation they’re building on, most of the time, they dip their toes in just about everything. There’re elements of straight-up pop, folk, alternarock, gospel, soul, and even funk (no, really; see “Girl, Don’t Be a Fool”), all rolling around in there together. Through it all, though, there’s a solidly “rural” feel to it, due somewhat to Elam’s decidedly Texas-bred singing voice. It’s almost perfectly representative of Houston, to me: every influence under the sun, all mashed up and tied together with a country-tinged voice.
As hinted before, the Greats are (happily) fairly prolific, having self-released three awesomely-done full-lengths so far: 2007’s self-titled debut; 2009’s Ocean, Meet the Valley; and 2011’s Black Blizzard. While they do take substantial breaks every once in a while (partly because Ginsbach lives out in West Texas these days, which makes regular shows difficult), they have yet to really stop moving, and that’s a damn good thing.
They’ve had some cool successes along the way, too, charting in the CMJ 200 and having songs show up on episodes of The Real World: Brooklyn back in 2009. And of course, this isn’t all these guys do, either. The Brothers Lee are also in Finnegan, alongside awesome TLG backup singer/live guitarist Sara Van Buskirk, and play with the latter when she does her solo thing, too. Damn multi-talented people…
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