Wizard of Blahs
Say Hi's Indie-Pop Whine and Cheese Gets Better with Age
Back when Ballard resident Eric Elbogen's one-man band was called Say Hi to Your Mom and recording entire albums about vampires and science fiction, it was easy to dismiss his act as merely cute. But then Elbogen decided to leave Your Mom out of it and trade the sometimes-overwrought geekery for less- idiosyncratic indie pop on 2007's The Wishes and the Glitch. Now recording as simply Say Hi, Elbogen has followed that album with Oohs & Aahs, his sixth record and first for local label Barsuk. It is both his best album yet and—as odious and overused as this term is—his most mature.
"They started to say that with the last one," laughs Elbogen, 32. "I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. I really don't think of myself at all as the same person I was when I wrote the first few records."
Elbogen, who grew up in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley and went to college at UCLA, formed Say Hi to Your Mom in Brooklyn in 2002. He released three synth-riddled pop-rock albums under that name on his own Euphobia Records while at the same time working pseudonymously as a music critic. In 2006, tired of New York City's hectic pace, he relocated to Seattle and released his final album under the longer original moniker, the underrated Impeccable Blahs.
"I sort of stopped [writing about music] when music started paying the bills," Elbogen says. "Which was also kind of around the time that some of the negative reviews started to roll in. It was partly a financial thing and partly—the first couple times that someone just trashed me and the records, I decided that was something I didn't want to do to another band."
Indeed, a pair of bad reviews from Pitchfork even moved Elbogen to pen an open letter to the hegemonic rock-crit outlet.
"I mean, sure, when I read a bad review it bums me out," he continues. "But I do my best to ignore it. I do my thing and make records that I'm happy with and go to bed at the end of every day being proud of—and if people don't like it, they don't like it."
Still—perhaps coincidentally, perhaps subliminally—the very elements for which the critics most panned Say Hi's early albums (overly precious, sometimes-nonsensical lyrics) are absent on his most recent records. Instead of using undead bloodsuckers as obvious metaphors for doomed romantic relationships, on Oohs & Aahs Elbogen plays it relatively straight, singing personal and character-rich songs about love and heartbreak that are simply affecting and subtly catchy.
"There will always be a little playfulness in everything I do, but I think it was a lot more apparent on the older records. On this one and the last one, I tried to find a nice balance between poignancy and not taking myself too seriously, instead of just making it a straight-up song about a robot or a vampire."
Indeed, on Oohs & Aahs there's only one monster, and even it is confined to the suggestive shadows between the lines on "Dramatic Irony"; the closest we get to the undead is Elbogen apologizing, "But Maurine, I can't come to your party 'cause I think that I'm dead."
It's also his first album to not feature some kind of robot on the cover; instead, there's a skeleton pointing a rifle at an old man. Each Say Hi record has been a different pastel monochrome, and although Elbogen says this one is red, some people say it's more pink. (He's already had a pink record. When pressed, he accepts that it might be a "mature pink.")
The album announces its seriousness with the resounding piano thuds that open "Elouise" over a foundation of steadily strummed bass guitar. The song is a paean to a late-night indie-radio siren: "Somewhere between the high 80s and low 90s FM," he sings, "Elouise plays the first Violent Femmes for those awake from twelve to two a.m." And Elbogen's voice—always on the softer, sighing side of things—sounds appropriately dreamy and sleepy-eyed. (This song also totally baits this publication by mentioning The Stranger by name—young musicians, take note of this exciting synergistic strategy!) It's a great song, maybe the album's best—pretty and catchy and heartfelt and totally destined for way better time slots on KEXP than the one heralded therein.
But there's much more going on here lyrically than just the abandonment of robot and zombie tropes. Elbogen is a much better lyricist than his early detractors may have given him credit for. Consider the word placement in "The Stars Just Blink for Us," a declaration not of his love's universal importance or explosive passion but of its quiet, slow- burning contentment: The stars don't blink "just for us" but "just blink for us," merely twinkling rather than going supernova.
On "Hallie and Henry" (the album is full of the kinds of names that cool young parents are probably giving their newborns right now), Elbogen lays into a stereotypically Seattle character: the wallflower who would rather passive-aggressively carp from the sidelines than actually risk getting involved and maybe having some fun (clearly, Elbogen wasn't cut out for music criticism).
"Henry is the guy who I've always lost the girl to," explains Elbogen. "He's just this terrible dude, he's a downer, and, I don't know, there's something about him that the girls gravitate toward instead of the nice-guy thing." (Elbogen's slouching, nerdy—but ultimately loveable!—persona is like the archetypal "nice-guy thing.") The song also has a line about "mak[ing] friends with the cool kids," which kind of begs the questions: How many moderately successful rock records must a self-styled nerd make before he's no longer a nerd? How old is too old to care about "the cool kids"? Thankfully, for the most part on Oohs & Aahs Elbogen is no longer posing as a nerd playing at being a rocker, nor a cool kid playing at being a nerd; he seems to have finally acclimated to his actual position somewhere in between—his geekiest reference here is to a Built to Spill 7-inch.
Twice on the album—on "November Was White, December Was Grey" and "Audrey"—the lyrics of the songs just trail off, dot dot dot, a cute but effective lyrical device, as though Elbogen just can't bring himself to get to the point of these songs.
Musically, too, Oohs & Aahs marks a progression for Elbogen. Like all his other albums, Elbogen recorded it all alone at home onto his computer, with a monastic kind of isolation and work ethic. But for this one, he set himself a rule to use as much traditional acoustic instrumentation as possible, though he admits "a few synths still snuck in there." It's his least ferocious, most moping album yet—the sound of a power-pop band powering down—but it's a good fit, his deferential hum of a voice and a faded robot fixation reminiscent of Grandaddy at their most mellow. Elbogen has always had an easy hand with unobtrusive but naggingly catchy pop hooks, and Oohs & Aahs is no exception. The triumphantly echoing "Elouise," the tensely eager verse and ascending chorus of "Hallie and Henry," the acoustically mild but still swinging "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh," the synthetic fanfare of "Maurine"—all of this is major earworm material.
Oohs & Aahs may be more minor pop pleasure than fame-making masterpiece. And while Elbogen does worry, he seems to have a healthy attitude about his career trajectory.
"I'm 32 years old, and at some point if you're still selling the same amount of records and playing the same 250-capacity rooms and you're getting closer to 40 or pushing beyond that, it becomes kind of sad. Especially when you encounter bands that are doing super well and everyone in the band is 19 to 22 years old.
"But if I stress about it too much," he continues, "I look at my record collection and realize that there are really amazing bands out there that are older that are still doing it and still doing well, and that gives me hope."