January 30, 2013

Elim Bolt, Brave Baby and Charleston's Vibrant Pop-Rock Scene

Photo Credit: Megan Elger

A classically trained pianist and independent songwriter, Dan McCurry aspired to make his living as a performing musician in Charleston, SC. But musical journeys have a funny way of taking unexpected detours. Over the last few months, McCurry's record label Hearts & Plugs has accelerated into high gear, with the release of two sampler compilations and majestic debuts from two Lowcountry bands: Elim Bolt and Brave Baby, two young groups poised for greatness.

Last November, Hearts & Plugs issued Elim Bolt's reverb-soaked album Nude South. In January, the label followed up with the release of a collection by synth-tinged quintet Brave Baby, Forty Bells. Both albums received impressive reviews in their home state's papers and on the indie web.

"A big part of the Hearts & Plugs philosophy is pooling resources and getting as much done as we can," McCurry says. "The main resource we don't have is money. We don't have a big investor, but we can make the art look good, and we can make the music sound good."

Elim Bolt frontman Johnnie Matthews grew up on a farm in Elim, SC, just south of Florence, where his first serious band experience was playing bass in pop-rock outfit Sequoyah Prep School. In 2011, Matthews left home and landed in Charleston.

"I started taking more of an interest in writing about two-and-a-half years ago," Matthews says. "I was living on the family farm by myself when I realized that I wanted to be in control of writing my own songs."

Matthews then worked up a solid batch of melodic originals, enlisting drummer Wolfgang Zimmerman, bassist Christian Chidester, guitarist Jordan Hicks and vocalist Amber Joyner to record with him at Zimmerman's home studio, nicknamed The Space. After gathering six of his strongest originals for a solo EP, Felix, Matthews immediately followed up on sessions for Nude South.

Stepping aside from his own band Run Dan Run, McCurry joined the group in the studio, adding organ and keyboard parts. The collaboration paid off. From the tearful, reverb-soaked opener "Only You" to the dreamy, drowsy waltz of closing track "Blue Jays," Nude South works from a foundation of classic pop stylings—soaring melodies, close-knit harmonies and clever arrangements. Matthews' rich, baritone vibrato drenches every song, from slow-rolling, heartbreaker ballads to loud and noisy rompers like the anthemic "Farm Kid," a fan fave.

"We've been calling it indie-crooner-rock," Matthews says. "I just wanted it to sound like a welcoming wall of sound."

Led by singer and guitarist Keon Masters, a native of Fort Mill, SC, Brave Baby is Elim Bolt's close music sibling. There are musical similarities between the labelmates. Both bands share an affinity for chiming guitars, dynamic arrangements and clever verses. They also share three core members: Chidester, Zimmerman and Hicks.

But while Elim Bolt's amped-up pop draws from vintage rock and roll and alternative styles, Brave Baby aims for a more modern twist of orchestral pop and experimental rock. Masters' musical arrangements and lyrical work veer towards a more sweeping, moody, emotive sound.

Like Elim Bolt's first full-length, Forty Bells is a self-made, low-budget debut, but, also similarly, it's a stunning, supercharged collection of hearty anthems, epic ballads and echoey pop-rock.

"I think we fit really well next to Elim Bolt," Masters says. "Both bands… have some similar production qualities. [But unlike Elim Bolt] I've never tried to embrace the Southern approach, as far as my tone and delivery. We'll embellish some Southern themes, but we aim for that grandiose, larger-than-life sound, with little scenes from verse to verse."

Elim Bolt and Brave Baby are currently on the road for the Hearts & Plugs showcase tour, which is winding through Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee to Chicago and back. Hearts & Plugs founder McCurry is traveling with the entourage as both a bandmate and label figurehead. All involved will visit Athens for the first time this weekend.

As far as the budding label, McCurry says that his initial goal was to focus on a home base of acts and grow along with them. In addition to Elim Bolt and Brave Baby, the roster currently includes Columbia-based folk-pop/electronica band The Lovely Few, Charleston-based drummer Nick Jenkins' solo project Mr. Jenkins and McCurry's own Run Dan Run.

"We'd like to always recognize our roots while also moving beyond just being a hometown label," McCurry says. "We hope that in three to five years, perhaps, we're in the league of other very respectable indie labels, like Barsuk, Jade Tree, Carpark, et cetera."

But home will always remain the focus. "We're starting here, and we're going to continue to highlight Charleston no matter where we are."

WHO: Elim Bolt, Brave Baby, Androcles and the Lion, Last Tycoon
WHERE: Farm 225
WHEN: Friday, February 1