One of the stranger bands in the already odd Elephant 6 collective, Athens, Georgia’s Elf Power shows what happens when a bunch of post-Pavement DIY indie rockers come across a cache of old Gentle Giant and Renaissance albums. Co- leaders Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter show an ever- increasing ability to write catchy and compelling pop songs, but their early albums are so swamped in lo-fi noise and the later ones are so burdened with increasingly grandiose conceptual song cycles that finding the gems can sometimes be a trial.
Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs is a cheaply made home recording and sounds like it — at times the tape hiss drowns out some of the instruments. Most of the songs are aimless improvisations with stream-of- consciousness lyrics, and even catchy pop tunes like “Finally Free” sound like the rhythm section consists of a toy drum set and a stretched rubber band. The self- released first edition on vinyl had a 53-copy pressing. It was reissued by a small indie the following year and finally hit CD in 2000, augmented by the five tracks of the equally chaotic Winter Hawk EP.
When the Red King Comes benefits from an increased recording budget which may even be in the triple digits. Though still noisy, the improved sound coincides with a sharper focus in the songwriting (that’s good) and the first hint of impending mythological obsessions (not so good). Highlights include a smashing, punky run through Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye” and Rieger’s own “The Secret Ocean” and “Icy Hands Will Never Melt Away,” two sprightly pieces of fuzz-pedal pop.
A Dream in Sound is Elf Power’s sonic breakthrough, of a piece with the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin and Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, producer Dave Fridmann’s other high profile jobs of the same period. Rieger’s vocals sound entirely new: a plaintive, high-pitched reediness that’s disturbingly close to that of Wayne Coyne or Jonathan Donahue. With the almost orchestral sweep of this now-richly textured music, A Dream in Sound is a huge step beyond Elf Power’s relatively thin earlier albums, but Fridmann’s fingerprints are all over it, making the album considerably less distinctive and original. (A limited-edition EP, Come On, recorded for the group’s 1999 tour with Olivia Tremor Control, is a temporary backslide to the scratchy psych-pop of yore.)
The Winter Is Coming reduces Fridmann’s role to a mixing and mastering credit. The album is even more musically complex, but odd touches in the arrangements sound more organic, and the increased density gives songs like the droning, apocalyptic “Embrace the Crimson Tide” an intriguing quality of foreboding. By comparison, Creatures is just plain weird. The almost impenetrable storyline seems to have something to do with slimy serpent-like beasts living underneath our world (perhaps Rieger’s been listening to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). The overall tone, which was melancholy in the past, has become downright bleak. Rieger’s latest vocal style is a slurred mumble somewhere between Neil Young on Tonight’s the Night and Lou Reed on New York, while the mostly acoustic tunes have a more stripped-down, skeletal feel. Odd, not a lot of fun but often engrossing.
Shifting gears yet again, Elf Power formed their own Orange Twin label (the proceeds of which fund a 155-acre nature preserve of the same name near Athens) and released Nothing’s Going to Happen, a covers collection, in which they try on (mostly) punk-era songs by Bad Brains, Gary Numan, Hüsker Dü and others.
Nearly two years later, a partially new lineup (former Olivia Tremor Control guitarist Eric Harris and Glands bassist Craig McQuiston alongside Rieger, Carter and longtime drummer Aaron Wegelin) changed directions entirely with the brilliantly poppy Walking With the Beggar Boys. Eleven concise, catchy songs in 32 minutes, with downright clean production, perfectly comprehensible lyrics and no overarching album concept, it’s utterly unlike anything Elf Power has previously attempted and the group’s best album. Highlights include the title track (which features a spirited call-and-response verse between Rieger and Vic Chesnutt), the trippy-creepy “The Cracks” and the energetic, almost power-pop “Big Thing.”