The Chess Hotel is an album of many firsts for the Elms: it's their first record in four years, the long-awaited sequel to their second album, 2002's Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll; it's their first album for a major label; and it's their first album not to be targeted at a CCM audience. Prior to this record, the Elms were recording for the Christian label Sparrow, but based on the sound of The Chess Hotel, that's a little hard to believe, since it's a loose, rowdy, invigorating set of no-nonsense rock & roll. No other band from the alternative CCM market has ever been this much fun or so genuinely rock & roll. On this terrifically entertaining album, they come across as a blend of the Black Crowes and Oasis, with a little bit of the roots rock of fellow Seymour, IN, native John Mellencamp thrown in for good measure. They love loud guitars, including greasy slide guitars, ragged rhythms, and big, big hooks that are hard to forget, and since it draws clearly and unashamedly on classic rock traditions, whether it's from the U.S. or the U.K., it might seem like it'd be easy to peg the Elms as retro-rock, but they're hardly throwbacks. They might be working within the confines of classic rock, but there's an unstudied nature to their writing and a commitment in their performance that makes The Chess Hotel seem fresh, particularly since there are virtually no straight-ahead, unapologetic rock & roll bands like this in 2006. And that's why The Chess Hotel is one of the best surprises of the year -- not only does nobody else sound like this right now, the Elms have the skills as songwriters and musicians to sound exciting. Fans of their first two albums have known this about the band, but those who are reluctant to try the Elms based on their past history should get past their doubts, because this album proves that this quartet is a good rock & roll band by any standard.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine