Review: Middle of Nowhere - Elska

Straight from the island of Elska, it's, er... Elska!

OK, that's merely the fanciful conceit of New York musician Shelley Wollert, who created the persona of Elska, a "modern pioneer who discovered a newly formed volcanic island off the coast of Iceland."

On her debut album Middle of Nowhere, Elska creates a sound which can be described as many things, but near the top of the list is "unique."  Not necessarily when looked at music from all genres targeted at all ages, but certainly in the kindiesphere.  It's a collection of tiny beats, samples, that, thanks to the purported Icelandic background, means that I am contractually required to say that it sounds a bit like Bjork.

In a kids music scene that very often starts and ends with guitars, the near if not total absence of those on the album by itself can be a bresh of fresh air.  The beats are unique (is that a drill on "Arctic Fox"?), though generally they're employed in the service of modern pop songs whose structure will be familiar to most.  There are some delightfully odd detours, like "Hiddi Hiddi," which, though I think has words, is essentially vocal beat-making.  Elska has a handful of different vocal approaches (e.g., clear, whispery) that provide variety in that regard.  So, sonically, the music from Wollert and producer Allen Farmelo is very solid.

Where Elska may not be for every family depends on the family's tolerance for anything that smacks of preciousness.  According to her website, Elska's catchphrase is "Totally Amazing!," and she carries through that committed attitude on her videos, in concert, and on the album.  She commits to that persona in a way that may be just a little too... much for some parents.  (I think kids will generally respond more favorably than their parents.)

But since I'm the one writing this review, I'll say that I am generally though not virulently anti-preciousness and I think the songs land way more often on the safe side of that dividing line.  "Frozen in Time," for example, is a beautiful song about some things changing and some things being permanent.  It's not terribly complicated or even profound, but there's a sure touch with it.  And unlike some things that have some preciousness attached to them, it's not a stuffy album (see "Hiddi Hiddi," or the fact that on "Don't Make Fun of the Goobler," she calls the Goobler, her "home slice").

On the other hand, I could see some folks rolling their eyes at "The Land of Lost Socks," which is, well, I think you can figure out what it's about.  And as an overarching conceit, the "story" of Elska's island isn't really developed much; the songs just offer the briefest of sketches of characters and locations.  The brief (27-minute) album will have greatest appeal to kids ages 3 through 7.

Middle of Nowhere will, for a variety of reasons, not resonate with every family.  But I think a lot of modern pop families will be charmed in some way by Elska's debut disk.  As she explores it further and refines her singular voice, I think she's going to be an artist to follow.  Definitely recommended.