Records are often like time capsules, lock boxes of thoughts, feelings and ideas that offer an immersive snapshot of an artist’s state of mind at a specific time in their life. 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong is such a record. It finds Alabama’s Caroline Sallee anxious and lonely in the torpid whirlpool of early adulthood, stuck circling the foggy estuary between a youth propelled by education and the shapeless maw of whatever comes next.
The record was inspired by a cross-country bus trip Sallee took in the months after graduating college, but its hushed, often claustrophobic tone is more indicative of the place it was actually recorded – back home, in her parent’s basement. Between the looping guitars and densely layered background vocals, it evokes the restless headspace someone mired in an echo chamber of their own thoughts, yearning to break out yet unable to find the inspiration necessary to achieve escape velocity.
That’s not to say 50,000,000 Elvis Fans is lacking in ideas; on the contrary, Sallee experiments with a variety of styles, proving herself as much a sculptor of intricate soundscapes as a songwriter. Funeral Potatoes features an impressionistic duet between a woodwind and ghostly piano reminiscent of the haunting atmospheres explored by Grizzly Bear, while shakers and lackadaisical acoustic guitar slides give My Fiancé’s Pet a bedroom calypso feel. Streetlights is fantastically odd, opening with a chirpy keyboard that sounds like something from childrens’ cartoon before things take a darker turn; the evocative minor arpeggios and a moody detuned synth that carry the rest of track wouldn’t sound out of place at the Twin Peaks’ roadhouse.
But in many instances Sallee struggles to get her creations off the ground, leaving 50,000,000 Elvis Fans feeling more like a collection of demos than fully realised debut record. It’s duration is a clue – there are just nine tracks on the album, and only half hit the three minute mark. Opener Winter is Cold seems to fizzle out just as it reaches its stride, and while the fade-out effect on Sallee’s elegant finger-picked riff is neat – like a creaky old handheld radio running out of batteries – it can’t mask the deflated feeling of unexplored potential. Ghost Pokes has a great chorus but begs for further development, it’s boilerplate guitar riff having overstayed its welcome by the end of the first verse.
No doubt Sallee’s circumstances (lonely, worried about the future and above all else, bummed out) are easy to relate to and it’s cathartic to hear her articulate familiar woes with such lucidity. But we often look to music not just for recognition but to give us the hope and energy to pull ourselves out a rut, to help us dream bigger. While there’s plenty here evidence to suggest a bright future Caroline Says, Sallee doesn’t quite escape her comfort zone on 50,000,000 Elvis Fans. “There’s no use in dreaming, I’m too old for the things a singer sings”, she sings on Gravy Days, having seemingly forgotten that, as the singer herself, she gets to dictate the limits of her aspirations.
50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong is re-issued by Western Vinyl on 4th August 2017.