Elizabeth Joan Kelly: Music for the DMV


One of the great things about art is how it transforms the mundane and the average, into something beautiful. Anybody can look at any great painting from say Van Gogh and admire it’s beauty, but most of it is just snapshots taken from everyday life, filtered through Van Gogh’s perception of it. Likewise Elizabeth Joan Kelly’s Music for the DMV, takes the unpleasant experience of being at the DMV (because let’s face it if you breathe air, and drive a car, then you’re not going to enjoy going to the DMV) and makes it into something beautiful.

So the question is how does she make it a beautiful? The best way to describe the album, is that it isn’t a way to make the DMV more calming; in fact tracks like Ghost in the Machine, Sci Fi Drive, and Silent Space Scream would do the complete opposite. As she describes the album ” Music for the DMV (after Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, but more angsty…because no one likes the Department of Motor Vehicles).” Yet I said before the music transforms the mundane experience of going into the DMV into something beautiful; so how does she accomplish this?

Well to begin with let’s take the actual sound. The very first thing I noticed in all of her tracks, is how layered, varied, and textured her sound is. It’s a vague description, I know, so I’ll break it down. So whenever anybody uses midi style instruments for making electronic music, there are like a thousand different presets for every humanly possible sound. Most people–myself included–kind of stick to around let’s say 15 different presets. Elizabeth Joan Kelly seems to know how to use all of them. Take Ambient Industrial Gymnopedie, you can hear the classical music influence (it is after all based off of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie no. 1), yet there are so many different synths, textures, layers, and an incredible industrial drumbeat that ties it all together–the track even re-invents a classical piece of music. The best comparison I could make is take cooking, I can make a mean bowl of chili, yet if you were to give me a duck I would have no idea what to do with it. Then let’s take a 5 star chef, you give him a duck he could make hundreds of dishes with it. Even the bowl of chili he would know exactly what ingredients to use, how to cook it, and improve upon it. Likewise Elizabeth Joan Kelly is like a 5 star chef in that she knows exactly what ingredients to use in each track, what sound works with what, what textures and synths to use, etc. to create this wonderful soundscape.

Yet this is Music for the DMV, the DMV isn’t exactly well known for it’s musical innovation. So how does the serene dreamy pop atmosphere of Call My Number and the creepy intense atmosphere of Silent Space Scream fit into being at the DMV? Now one could say that each track represents a sort of mood, a story of being at the DMV, which each twist and turn being represented by a song. Yet when you hear the 8-bit video game sound of Bowl City, the album becomes something different. Every track is so imaginative and world building that it feels less like an emotional journey at being at the DMV but rather the day dreaming of a creative person. Let’s take Calvin and Hobbes for a moment, because everybody loves Calvin and Hobbes. Anytime Calvin is at school his imaginative day dreams really have nothing to do with school, take this comic strip for example.

Now you notice that regardless of what is going on at school, Calvin was going to daydream about this. Whether he’s at school, home, the playground, or wherever Calvin is going to daydream about dinosaurs, astronauts, superheroes, plane crashes, etc. his surroundings aren’t going to limit his imagination. You see where I’m going with this?

Elizabeth Joan Kelly Music for the DMV isn’t so much a soundtrack for being at the DMV rather it’s a sandbox of creativity, a sort of jumping off point to go off on some imaginative adventure. Where Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports is a relaxing soundtrack to get people not to freakout that they’ll soon be flying 10,000 feet at 700 mph in a metal tube; Elizabeth Joan Kelly’s Music for the DMV says, “Hey I know this sucks being here, but let’s go on an adventure!”

So now that I used Calvin and Hobbes, now I’m going to be getting biblical. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan says after being expelled out of heaven and stranded in hell, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” And let’s be real if there is a hell it’s probably a lot like the DMV. Yet Elizabeth Joan Kelly’s music is like a guided meditation for the creatives, for the daydreamers in all of us, and something that helps us escape our immediate surroundings–and by accomplishing that she has made the mundane beautiful.

For providing the soundtrack, and even anthem of all daydreamers I give this album my recc.


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