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Chicago’s James Elkington journeys inward for ‘Ever-Roving Eye’

Amid steady activity, Elkington has completed his second solo album. Recorded at Wilco’s studio The Loft, “Ever-Roving Eye” is available beginning Friday from the Paradise of Bachelors label.

James Elkington
James Elkington
Timothy Musho

James Elkington emigrated from England to Chicago in the late ’90s, and his record collection may have influenced the decision.

“I had been such a fan of Chicago music from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s,” says Elkington. “My favorite music came specifically from Chicago labels like Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Skin Graft and Drag City.”

The openness of the local music community sealed the deal. “I was living in Wicker Park just around the corner from the Rainbo,” says Elkington. “Within a couple of weeks of being here, I was already playing in Mount Shasta, a band whose records I had. I had previously been living in London for eight years and hadn’t really met anyone outside of my band there.”

Fast-forward to now, and Elkington is a fixture of the city’s independent music scene. His own beloved bands the Zincs and the Horse’s Ha may be no more, but you’ll see him at the Hideout alongside Tortoise’s Doug McCombs crafting intoxicating instrumentals with Brokeback or creating bracing alt-rock textures with invigorated ’80s survivors Eleventh Dream Day. Elkington has performed rowdy alt-country with fellow expatriate Jon Langford, sometimes subs for post-rockers Tortoise, and serves as guitarist in Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s solo band.

“I had been such a fan of Chicago music from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s,” says James Elkington, who emigrated from England to the Windy City in the 1990s. “My favorite music came specifically from Chicago labels like Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Skin Graft and Drag City.”
“I had been such a fan of Chicago music from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s,” says James Elkington, who emigrated from England to the Windy City in the 1990s. “My favorite music came specifically from Chicago labels like Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Skin Graft and Drag City.”
Timothy Musho

Like 2017’s “Wintres Woma,” the album is rooted in elegant folk with mesmerizing fingerpicked guitar and leans on Elkington’s expressive, dusky baritone. Songs like the subverted Laurel Canyon-styled pop of “Leopards Lay Down” reveal cryptic but compelling flashes of Elkington’s dark wit. Overall, however, the songs on “Ever-Roving Eye” are more hot-blooded and propulsive.

Memories of the home left behind are bundled into “Rendlesham Way,” a cartwheeling instrumental revealing inspiration from European folk titans like Davy Graham, Bert Jansch and Pierre Bensusan. “There’s a street called Rendlesham Way in the village [in England] where I grew up that is an extremely steep hill,” says Elkington. “It was the quickest way to my favorite pub. One night in my late teens, my dad and I were driving back from our jobs when we got caught in a blizzard — unusual for England.”

James Elkington album cover for “Ever-Roving Eye” Courtesy Paradise of Bachelors

“We were so used to driving the same way home that we didn’t think about the fact that if we went down this hill, we might not be able to stop. At the top of the hill, my dad realized that his brakes really weren’t working anymore. He had to decide whether to go to the bottom of this hill where it basically went into a brick wall at a T-junction or try to slow down by crashing into this guy’s front wall and garden. He made the right call and chose the garden wall.

“Anyhow, the song is just slightly outside my capabilities. Whenever I play it, I feel like I’m out of control going downhill.”

“Late Jim’s Lament” has a driving jazz groove a la Ramsey Lewis Trio fueled by Nick Macri’s urgent double bass and Elkington’s restless Spanish guitar. Unlike the old Rolling Stones song, Elkington wryly sings that time has never been on his side. The tumbling “Sleeping Me Awake” touches on related territory. “That’s me just lying awake at night worrying,” he says. “And if I haven’t got anything to worry about specifically, I’ll think of something.”

There’s a message behind “Nowhere Time.” “If you’ve you got something that you feel you should be doing, then you should be doing it,” says Elkington. “Like most of these things that sound sort of preachy, I’m really saying them to myself.”

Elkington’s career has been a slow, persistent climb.

“I’m nearly 50,” he says. “I’ve only recently reached this point where I’m comfortable enough with myself to make a record that I think is honestly a fair reflection of who I am musically. I’m always amazed at these people who seem to spring fully formed at age 22. I don’t have that at all. It’s been extremely slow-going.”

Despite an album title suggesting restless seeking and never finding, the self-effacing songwriter expresses gratitude and satisfaction.

“I’m in a pretty amazing position,” says Elkington. “I still get to make records and play music with other people whose music I love and have a family and all of this stuff. I really got everything I wanted, so I should enjoy it.”

“You’d be surprised how much I complain about things,” he says, concluding with a laugh.

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.