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Spins: Jeff + Ping • The Threefinger Opera

| August 11, 2021 | 0 Comments

Jeff Elbel + Ping

The Threefinger Opera

(Marathon Records)

A few years ago, Chicago-area musician Jeff Elbel experienced a crushed nerve ending that denied him the use of two fingers on his left hand. This is bad news for someone who not only fronts his own band, the expansive Jeff Elbel + Ping but sits in on guitar and bass for a myriad of musicians regularly. Rather than sulk his way through an extensive healing process, Elbel decided to see what he could still do with his other three fingers.

The result is this joyous, unfailingly optimistic new record, The Threefinger Opera. Across 13 tracks, it tells the story of Elbel’s struggle with his newfound condition, one that struck “Like Lightning,” as one of the songs says. But you won’t hear a trace of self-pity here. This is an album about readjusting your mindset, about realizing that life can slow you down, but it can’t stop you unless you let it.

Such positivity is a Ping trademark. For more than 20 years, Elbel and his band have delivered high-energy rock marinated in the best pop music of the last five decades. The Threefinger Opera is their first in nine years, and it might well be their best. It is certainly their most focused. Its 39 minutes rocket by, both the story and the lush production carrying you along, and though it is consistent, it’s varied enough that it never loses your attention.

The Threefinger Opera is an album brimming with guest stars – the most famous of which is probably Cy Curnin of The Fixx, who provides opening and closing narration – but it doesn’t sound like one. Sonically, the spotlight remains on the core Ping band, including drummer John Blum, bassist Stacey Krejci, guitarist John Bretzlaff and keyboardist Mike Choby, with Elbel and the soulful Maron Gaffron trading off and blending their voices beautifully.

Those guests, however, provide something of a travelogue of Elbel’s musical life. He’s played with most of the people who feature here, from guitarist Mike Roe of the 77s to singer/songwriter Beki Hemingway to percussionist Tom Sharpe, best known for his work with Mannheim Steamroller. The guests run the gamut, stylistically speaking, which shows how varied Elbel’s musical family is. He even makes room for his real family – both of his daughters make appearances here as well.

The story starts with our hero feeling invincible. “I’m Gonna Be Like That,” a tale of childhood inspiration that devotes its entire first verse to the barrier-busting Kool-Aid Man, sets the tone well. It also tees up “Unstoppable Me,” an ELO-style anthem that features a ukulele choir provided by Chicago’s own Beatleleles. “Ready to encourage every Joe and Jan, fondly offer favor, happy helping hand,” Elbel sings in a clever moment of foreshadowing.

It’s an excellent example of one thing this album does very well. While its story is a specific one, you don’t really need to know it. Elbel’s lyrics are largely universal, full of hints (and, yes, hand puns) that point to the real-life inspiration but don’t prevent you from identifying with the songs and making them your own. Everyone’s had a moment where tragedy strikes out of nowhere, as it does in the funk-pop winner “Like Lightning.” Everyone’s had medical fears (“Mr. Madarakkis”), everyone’s felt like their lives are on hold sometimes (“Waiting Room”), and everyone has been frustrated when things fall apart (“Moan”).

As a testament to Elbel’s cleverness here, check out “Second Opinion,” a classic-sounding country waltz with delicious pedal steel work by Ben Waligoske. Yes, this is a weeping waltz about confirming your doctor’s advice, but it’s disguised as a tale of romantic loss, and it works. The rollicking “Lazy Louie” is actually about the one finger Elbel could not get to move, even after months of therapy, but if you didn’t know that, it might take a few listens for the song’s hidden wit to snap into place.

In its final stretch, The Threefinger Opera turns philosophical. “Moan” features sumptuous horns from several guest players and a lyric that I imagine Elbel sang to himself during his low moments: “Moan ‘cause it’s all coming apart now, moan, but a smile is better glue, long way off without a doubt, just gonna have to wait it out and see it through….”

“In Your Hands” is both a cover and a tribute to its author, Brian Healy, who died last year after suffering his own long-term medical problems. The song (with delightful violin parts played by Matt Gadeken) is about leaving your worries up to a higher power, and it serves as a thematic endpoint. “Slowly But Surely” concludes the story on a note of grace, with some sweet trumpet by Calexico’s Martin Wenk. “Healing is coming, slowly but surely,” Elbel sings, and though he is referencing his own woes, he could be singing about any and all of us. “Morning is coming; it happens each day….”

Elbel and his cohorts have certainly made the first rock opera about needing an operation. But while the true-life origins of this set of songs might pique your interest, it’s the songs themselves and the rich, full, clear production that will bring you back. The Threefinger Opera could have been a novelty or a curiosity. Instead, it turns out to be a thoughtful, well-written suite about overcoming life’s little difficulties with hope and perseverance. Oh, and it’s a lot of fun, too. (ping.bandcamp.com)

– Andre Salles

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