Eli Van Sickel
59:21 min • Independent • January 14, 2014
Walter Beck reviews
A year after the release of Nightlife, Indiana folk musician Eli Van Sickel has re-emerged for his third full-length album Teepee V. At 18 tracks, it’s one of his most expansive and diverse albums yet, featuring six traditional folk songs, eight instrumentals, a joke bit, and even a special guest on one song.
The album opens with Eli’s rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. While not as explosive as Jimi Hendrix’s, the instrumental does make the National Anthem all Eli’s own. With his one lone acoustic guitar, the song becomes not about military might, but about everyday people living out their own version of the American dream.
‘Going to Chicago’ is the first original on the album and, much like he did on some of his other albums, Eli’s journey starts with a stark ballad. Plucking out a lonesome folk riff on his guitar, his voice echoes on about his desire to leave small-town Indiana and make his fortune in the Windy City. It’s not money he’s after for his fortune, it’s the sights of the city, the artistic inspiration, and maybe even a girl to share his journey with.
‘California Sun Sets Past’ is the first instrumental original on the album and it certainly conjures up the image of its title. Eli’s sparse, warm feeling plucking definitely sets the mood for a warm west coast sun setting, when the beach empties out and the dreams of night begin.
He lays his heart out in ‘Only Us’, singing lightly about his relationship with his girl, going through the little annoyances of their life together, underwear left on the floor or the habits of repeatedly clicking pens. But the real humor comes in when he sings about their naked Saturdays,
This feels so good,
I never wanna put clothes on again.
Then she says ‘But you have to,
The people at the bank would stare’.
‘Let them stare,’ I say with pride,
‘they’ll probably enjoy it’.
Then she says, ‘Oh shut up’.
Then I say ‘I love you’ –
The sixth cut ‘I Don’t Belong in No City/Risk Don’t Come Easy’ is one of the best instrumentals on the first half of the album. Eli treats his guitar almost like a bluegrass banjo, plucking out a string of notes at what nearly seems to be a thousand miles an hour. Halfway through the number, he switches over to a jumpy blues riff, capturing quite well the complicated dreams and wants often expressed in his music. The song ends with a somewhat exhausted, “Oh shit.”
‘Burn’ brings things back down, Eli tackles the nightmare of feeling like he’s growing old too young and losing his chance to show his stuff. It takes the spirit of legendary alt country band Uncle Tupelo, singing of the poison trap of small-town life and the psychological prison cell of not really being able to leave because you don’t know how. Eli shines his ache through brilliantly, moaning out,
Will I ever find out what I’m worth?
Or will I just fade out before I get a chance to burn?
I don’t wanna fade out before I get a chance to burn –
The first half of the album ends with another instrumental, ‘Autumn’ and it sounds like it could almost be a coda for the previous song, conjuring up images of fading and falling leaves, another year coming to an end before the dreams could be realized.
The second half starts with ‘Married Yet Blues’, a somewhat jumpy and humorous number about another issue Eli faces as he moves into his late 20s, seeing all his friends getting married. Rather than crying on a shoulder, Eli grins at everyone else getting hitched and him seemingly the only one who still single,
Well, I tell you it’s the scariest thing,
Everybody’s looking for the ring.
What am I gonna do?
I got the ‘I’m The Only One Who Isn’t Married Yet’ Blues –
The shine and humor fades quickly with the title track ‘Teepee V’, a stark and heavy sounding instrumental number. According to Eli, Teepee V was a design held by his grandfather Robert Van Sickel and the instrumental number here conjures up that image of a strong and steady man, growing old with his dignity intact.
If ‘Teepee V’ was a tribute to his grandfather’s life of strength, ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ is a nod to the man’s spirit. An instrumental version of an old hymn, Eli lets his guitar sing out the praises to his grandfather’s soul and the hope that he rests in paradise.
‘Requiem for the Girl in the ICU’ is the last instrumental on the album and Eli seems to have saved the best for last, a nine-minute sprawling epic, tinged with dark blues, hopeful folk riffs, and a fitting prayer to the life of someone Eli didn’t know. Her name, her story, it doesn’t seem to matter; she’s a human being, and Eli saw to it that she got hopes and prayers with his well-worn guitar.
Track fifteen ‘Only Remembered’ is another traditional folk number, but instead of using his guitar to accompany him, Eli double tracks his vocals and creates a beautiful a cappella rendition of this song. The first true a cappella song he has recorded, it showcases his voice quite well, showing it to be just as strong an instrument as his guitar.
‘Station Break’ is a bit of a joke bit on the album, showing Eli taking a light-hearted stab at the station call numbers of the ISU radio station where he got his undergraduate degree, intoning,
Ain’t it nice poinsettias phlegm,
Doubtful you I is you in Terre Haute, In the amazon.
Home of the We Go Count the Shuls Corporation,
In the Fanny State University,
and the Queen Sitting of the Car Wash. It’s 7:30 –
The album’s last regular track is ‘Jenny Jenkins’, another traditional folk number. This time Eli finds himself accompanied by Jake Wasson. The two jauntily sing through this one, with Wasson’s country sounding voice working well side-by-side with Eli’s softer, folk styled vocals. The two sound like they’re having a blast, just a couple of old friends jamming on a song they both know.
‘Mole in the Ground’ is a bonus cut on the album and Eli ends his third full length album with one last old folk number. But this time he has a bit of a joke on the whole thing, funneling his guitar and vocals through the speed adjuster on the mixing board, adding the “chipmunk effect” to the both. It’s a pretty fitting ending to the record, showing that for all his blues and laments, Eli is still having fun through the whole thing.
If Nightlife and Middle West were concept albums, stories of people Eli knew or dreamed of, Teepee V is his autobiography, with him taking center stage. It’s a complicated album, a mix of humor and sadness, of originals and folk songs, but it’s a powerful mix all together. Who knows what will come next for Eli Van Sickel, but his third album finds him musically and lyrically as strong as ever.