Friday, April 23, 2010

April 23: Sons Of Elvis, "Formaldehyde"

Artist: Sons Of Elvis
Song: "Formaldehyde"
Album: Glodean
Year: 1994

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While the idea of the "one hit wonder," the band that has a hit single and never finds similar success, has been well documented over the years, there is in fact another definition of this term, and it functions in a more strange, and far more rare manner.  If one looks deep into the history of recorded music, there are a handful of groups that found small success with their music, and largely due to the fumbling of record labels, were not given a "fair shot" at larger success, though their music is equal to, if not superior to the hits of the era in which they recorded.  Standing as a shining example of this exceptionally rare phenomena is the early 1990's rock act, Sons Of Elvis.  Bringing a bright, unique sound, these Cleveland, OH natives had a style and energy that provided a brilliant contrast to the more somber grunge music that dominated the music scene at the time.  After finding small success in their hometown, the quartet moved to New York City to attend college, and it was there a the group caught the attention of a number of record labels, eventually signing to an indie-label, American Empire Records.  Shortly after the signing, the label went under, and Sons Of Elvis were picked up by the newly-formed "rock division" at Priority Records.  Again, the band suffered the ills of inexperience and ineptitude on the part of their label, and their 1994 release, Glodean, was never really given a "fair" shot for success.  Regardless, the album is absolutely fantastic, putting to shame a majority of the albums that sold millions of copies that year.  With a strong, distinctive tone, the album is highlighted by one of the most tragically unheard songs of the 1990's, Sons Of Elvis' brilliant rocker, "Formaldehyde."

In nearly every aspect, "Formaldehyde" provides a stark, yet wonderful contrast to the morose sounds of the grunge movement that were taking over the world in 1994.  From the moment "Formaldehyde" begins, there is a bright, energizing tone to the song, set into place by the perfectly distorted guitar of Tim Parnin.  This mood is taken further by the fantastic interplay between Parnin's electric guitar and the acoustic guitar that handles the rhythm parts for the entire song.  Though it is an age-old technique, it rarely works as well as it does on "Formaldehyde," and this dual sound is one of the keys to the overall greatness of the song.  Also setting the tone for the song from the onset is the brilliant bassline from Dave Hill.  As it winds and pounds through the song, it quickly becomes one of the most unforgettable and uniquely funky bass progressions in history, and one can easily make the case that the fact that the bass is so far forward at the top of the song is one of the most alluring aspects of "Formaldehyde."  Rounding out the band is drummer Pat Casa, and his superb performance across his entire kit is one of the most uniquely fantastic displays of any drummer of the era.  In truth, Casa is able to make the song have an odd "shimmer" that is unlike anything else ever recorded, and yet he is simultaneously able to keep the band firmly rooted in a hard rock sound.  The overall sound put forth by Sons Of Elvis on "Formaldehyde" is truly the ideal sound of the growing "alternative" sound of the era, and after hearing it just once, one cannot help but ponder how the song did not take over the entire world.

Perfectly complimenting the beaming mood of the music on "Formaldehyde," the vocals of John Borland are equally fantastic in every aspect.  With a voice that has a tone and pitch unlike any other singer in history, one can easily hear the pure excitement that bursts from him at every turn of the song.  It is this sort of genuine enjoyment of performance that makes a song ruly special, and it is a rare occasion that one will find it captured in this manner.  Staying in the vocal range where he sounds strongest, Borland creates most of his emotion through the power with which he delivers each line.  From the more mellow verse to the jumping, almost screamed bridge and chorus, the inflection in his voice gives "Formaldehyde" an amazing sense of the dramatic and also gives the song an uncanny sense of depth and pure power.  Yet his upbeat singing and music is set in brilliant contrast to the subject matter of the song, as the title of "Formaldehyde" is a fantastic allusion to the theme about which Borland is singing.  While the song can be interpreted on multiple levels, perhaps the most intriguing is when one sees the song as commentary on a busted relationship.  Though many have referred to a relationship as "dead" over the decades, none have ever taken quite the approach that is found on "Formaldehyde," and when Borland sings lines like, "...keep digging my way up, from the hole you've got me in...I won't be back too soon..."  The contrast between the mood of the song and the lyrics is truly fantastic, and it is yet another reason why the songs' lack of world-wide success is more inexplicable.

When a record label brings on a new band and the group does not live up to their hype, it is understandable that the record label does not go "all out" to promote the record in question.  Yet when the situation is reversed, and the inexperience and ineptitude of the record label causes a truly amazing album to be denied proper publicity, it is nothing short of a musical tragedy.  Case in point is the alternative rock band Sons Of Elvis and their truly fantastic 1994 record, Glodean.  Standing far superior to a majority of the albums being released at the time, the group brings a distinctive tone and approach to their music, and everything from the musical arrangements to the lyrics are perfectly executed.  On an album filled with great songs, the single "Formaldehyde" stands out from the others, and it was able to find moderate chart success, as well as being featured in a few movies.  The fact that both of these instances occurred, and yet the record label was unable to properly market the band for success shows just how much the "swing" of the label can make or break an artist.  After hearing Glodean, one can easily make the case that had Sons Of Elvis been properly marketed, they would have been one of the most successful acts of the era.  Perfectly toned and mixed guitar work from Tim Parnin and the rhythm section of Hill and Casa are unlike any of their peers, and the production from Mr. Colson (of L7 fame) makes the album a truly special musical effort.  While there are countless songs labeled as "one hit wonders," one can ONLY wonder why the record label did not do more for Sons Of Elvis, as there is a true musical classic within their 1994 single, "Formaldehyde."


John Borland said...

Thanks for the tremendous ego boost. I have to say that i wouldn't change a thing seeing how my life has turned out. I am happily married with to great sons and an English teacher. I still write and record my own music mostly for fun and play solo acoustic on a regular basis around long island. Sometimes as much as four four hour gigs a week in the summer. I don't see my bandmates as much as I would like because distance has separated us but I have nothing but awesome memories and no regrets

DigMeOut said...

Check out a podcast review of Glodean by Sons of Elvis at

Jason K. said...

Here here! I am listening to Glodean as we speak and wondering how in the world this band did not take over the world. Alas... Great to hear that John B. Is doing well and I also know that Dave Hill has done some cool stuff. You guys were the best!