You could say Mad Crush know a thing or two about music. Only years of experience can explain the wry wit and complimentary musicianship of the songs on the band’s self-titled debut album. One part June Carter sassing Johnny Cash along with two dashes of Itzhak Perlman on a midnight hayride, Mad Crush’s songs contain theatrical, back-and-forth performances between their singing protagonists Joanna Sattin and John Elderkin. Complete with humor and heartbreak, their songs are in fact bright little dramas about fussing, fighting, and occasionally making up—universal truths sprinkled with brand-new magic dust.
Hailing from Chapel Hill, N.C., Mad Crush brings together five talented players whose previous credits are widely varied. Drummer Chuck Garrison started as indie-legend Superchunk’s drummer, and he has toured the world with them and also with his later bands Pipe and Zen Frisbee. He has played in support of such luminaries as Sonic Youth, Screaming Trees, and Mudhoney, among others. Violinist Laura Thomas has worked with a bevy of heavyweights, from Ray Charles, Jay Z, and Judy Collins to acclaimed R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter, Itzhak Perlman, and Hilary Hahn. Singer John Elderkin’s songwriting has been praised by SPIN, Billboard, Jon Pareles of The New York Times, R.E.M. producer Don Dixon, and Cashbox. He has recorded with such VIPs as Stuart Lehrman (The Roaches, Paul Simon), Brian Paulson (Wilco, Son Volt, Superchunk) and Chris Stamey (Whiskeytown, Big Star). Ingenious electric guitarist Mark Whelan is a stalwart of the local music scene, having played in The Popes and The Veldt, among many other bands. And newcomer Joanna Sattin brings the hot, remarkable vocal delivery that gives the band it's “certain something.”
Mad Crush, the album, operates under the guise of indie-folk, oiled to perfection with lyrics inspired by Elderkin’s desire “to get to the heart of what matters—how we deal with getting what we want in life, and also how we deal with losing it.” In this way, songs that first appear to be about romance are also roadmaps to much grander stories. For example, in the smooth-talking opener “Time for a Love Song,” Elderkin’s braggadocious leading man declares his infatuation for Sattin’s cynical woman, in much the same spirit of Tony Award winning playwright and lyricist Joe DiPietro’s popular 1996 musical, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. In lieu of shaded caricatures of modern love, Elderkin plants his characters in real, relatable situations and repeatedly employs humor as a way to expose his own insecurities.
With “Northern Lights,” Sattin takes the lead for the set’s most emotional moment. Her first time recording vocals for a full band, her performance here is a marvelous demonstration of true talent. “Joanna just owns it. The song would not work without her,” says Elderkin. Violinist Thomas agrees. “She came in and knocked it out of the park. And within days, she became an expert in the studio,” she says.
“Stay in Bed” is a canoodling romp around the cherished moments when the power of love pulls the pair through all doubt. “You give me a reason to stay up past 10, now and then,” coos Elderkin. The balancing act he executes with Sattin is downright charming, and the gentle push and pull between the two throughout the album cuts right to the heart of what Mad Crush does best. Conversely, “My Pre-Existing Conditions” is almost an Avenue Q b-side, spliced with comedy and misery. “Frankly, I used the ongoing healthcare debate as inspiration. I ran with that and made up this list of pre-existing conditions that are a jumble of character flaws,” he explains. “A lot of what I’m listing is true of myself, and, some of it, I made up because it fits the theme of rejection. So, some are silly and others are meant to be freaking heartbreaking. The payoff comes at the end, when I beg to be accepted despite all these flaws, the way we all want to be.”
That theatrical element to Elderkin’s songwriting and performance grew out of his previous project, a high-powered rock opera that was an unofficial sequel to David Bowie’s 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. With that band, ¡Moonbeams No Mas!, he went for larger-than-life, majestic storytelling. “I have an MFA in fiction writing, and I was ready to write something big,” he says. “That double album felt like writing a novel, and I worked on it line-by-line in that way. I think the story holds up the same way a musical works.”
When Elderkin returned to the Triangle area of North Carolina a few years ago, he was ready to satisfy a different ambition—trying a new dramatic style and approach with a new band. “I am incredibly lucky to be working with top-flight musicians, and frankly, our sound is a result of everyone doing their own thing in service of each song. You can hear each personality emerge as the music unfolds,” he explains. “That means we all have a say in the stories we are telling, so there’s a richness and freshness you can’t plan for in advance. It’s exciting.”
Without a bass player, Mad Crush’s new album is pinned somewhere between the earth and the stars. Guitars, violin, and percussion predominantly make up the arrangements and create an almost floating sonic effect. “We consciously made it our project to write these songs in a way that they work without a bass,” says Thomas. “That’s another reason we sound a bit different.”
With such a tremendous lineup of talent, Mad Crush is a saucy, heartwarming, and tragically poetic watercolor of lust, hope, and uncertainty.