For over half a decade, Elf Power was untouchable. Show me a better run than the one the band experienced from 1996's When the Red King Comes to 2002's Creatures, and, well, I'll show you The Fall (or Pavement), but the point is, I haven't seen another twee indie-pop band, much less another Elephant 6 band, capable of such consistency, grace, and longevity as those four records demonstrate.
But 2004's Walking With the Beggar Boys was the first truly mediocre album the band had ever released: an attempt at down-and-dirty mid-70s T-Rex swagger that found Elf leader Andrew Rieger suddenly rudderless in the songwriting department. I can only name two good songs off the entire affair - "Invisible Men" and the title track, the second of which was only redeemed live. Some albums get a bad rap unfairly in the indie world, but Beggar Boys is one that deserves the criticism. New promo photos around that time saw Rieger and keyboardist Laura Carter with two new members standing in a countryside construction site. Indeed, change was afoot, but not necessarily for the better.
They have never been Elephant 6's flagship band, but rather the collective's best-kept secret, in a way. They've flirted with higher profile, opening for REM, recording 1999's excellent A Dream in Sound with the Flaming Lips' producer Dave Friedmann, and, like most Elephant 6 Bands, have been joined in the studio/on stage by members of every other band in the collective (e.g. Jeff Mangum, Heather McIntosh).
And sadly, the last four years have not seen a career renaissance for Elf Power. Former contemporaries Neutral Milk Hotel have been fucking deified and Olivia Tremor Control received deluxe reissues of their mid 90s records. Apples in Stereo continue their re-acceptance into the mainstream, highlighted by Robert Schneider's appearances on Colbert Report, and Of Montreal, who seem prone to exchanging members with the Power (and whose older records sound like annoyingly hyperactive outtakes from Apples/Elf albums(don't get me wrong, I really like the newer stuff)), have become independent rock superstars.
But Elf Power isn't on national TV or writing music for commercials. They generally don't record on their laptops at home and they don't experiment with electronica. No, they're still doing things the old way. Andrew writes songs on an acoustic guitar with a four-track, the band learns them, and then they record the album, then they tour the album. And it was this by-the-books process yielded the follow up to Beggar Boys, Back to the Web.
Back to the Web did not grab me or anyone I know right off the bat. Which doesn't stop it from being one of Elf Power's absolute best records, perhaps stronger than Creatures. Here, Rieger matures - but not too much - blending his child-like sense of surrealistic imagery and naturalistic setting in sing-song rhyme with an unexpected Middle Eastern vibe, courtesy of his embracing an acoustic-twelve string for much of his guitar work on the album, as well as the whining, burlesque string section that appears on half the songs. The mood of the record is dark, often dour, with several tracks finding the band vamping over minor-key pedals behind Andrew's lyrics, now more down-to-earth than before, yet still fantastical - if the titles of "Peel Back the Moon, Beware!," "Spider and the Fly" and "King of Earth" are any hint. Even the most old-school sounding track on the record, the single "All the World is Waiting" is infused with an onimous pastoral vibe, as if Elf Power has become a naturalist cult promoting themselves on CD. The album is a rarity for a band such as Elf Power - the one the band should be making at that point in their career. It reflected no current trend, but rather, a following of their own star at their own pace. It also helped bury Beggar Boys fairly quickly.
This year saw the release of In a Cave, the kind of package that a record company has to be held back from blurting out "RETURN TO FORM" over. Yes, it does sound more like one would expect Elf Power to sound than say, the previous two records. However - this isn't the same fun-loving, fantastical, zany sound-effects band that we knew in the late 90s.
Start with the title. If Back to the Web sounded like a retreat on the band's part, what do we make of In a Cave? Has Rieger decided to officially wave the white flag on widespread success? Or is the title a reflection on the type of existence the band has always led, isolated even from their Elephant 6 brothers & sisters? It's true - the Elf have never really fit, which could be chalked up to all kinds of factors, including Rieger's voice: while Olivia Tremor Control had adept Beatles-imitators on the mic and Mangum's weary bleating melts hearts after the initial offense, Rieger's voice is twee, high, and consistently vulnerable. He's developed his vocals dramatically through his career; the triple-tracked harmonies on the new album are confident and powerful - but his leads still betray a boyish, wide-eyed tremble that informs much of the music. And it's an acquired taste.
The weariness found in the album's moniker is more evident in its contents. Check on the titles on this one - "A Tired Army," "Paralyzed," "Fried Out." Elf Power's songwriting gets a breath of fresh air with the four tracks ex-Olivia Tremor Control drummer Eric Harris concocted for Rieger to sing over, often with great results, particularly opener "Owl Cut (White Flowers in the Sky)" which sounds like psychedelic analog techno. However, the other three often sound like OTC outtakes that Andrew made a special guest appearance on. Check on the beginning of "A Tired Army" with the overcompressed piano and dragging drumbeat and see if the words Cubist Castle don't immediately spring to mind.
Rieger, as always, is more than capable of coming up with a good tune - problem is, he's written a few of them before. "Spiral Stairs" borrows the refrain from Back to the Web's "Peel Back the Moon, Beware!" for its chorus, while "New Lord" reprises the melody of "All the World is Waiting." And while Cave's predecessor was dark and down-to-earth, this one sounds downright resigned. Check out "Fried Out," where Rieger confronts a drug-casualty acquaintance through his own particular lexicon - "You are never coming back/Forever falling through the cracks/Hope we'll see you once again/We're all moving towards the end" are lyrics so warily cynical I would have never expected to hear them on an Elf Power record.
The album is not without its high points, particularly the jumpy folk-spasm "Paralyzed" and the Stones-y "Quiver and Quake." And despite my reservations, I am encouraged by the Harris/Rieger collaborations, and hoping more experimentation will spill onto the next record - the band needs it. And really, if I hadn't fallen so hard for Back to the Web, Cave would sound far fresher to these ears. Instead, I hear a good band looking to branch out but also retreading some old ideas, too.
I saw the band for the second time this year at Bottom of the Hill. In contrast to my first live Elf Power experience, it fell flat. Guitarist Jimmy Hughes was so fucked up for most of the show that he could barely change chords on time or sing above a whisper. Bassist Derek Almstead seemed like he was in his own world, overplaying through much of the new material high up on the neck of his guitar, but the drummer - was it Harris? - was passable, even inventive with some of the slower numbers. And then there's Andrew, who is nothing if not a pro onstage, very focused and together, and therefore, I suppose, ignorant of the lack of cohesion evident in his band onstage. The lineup desperately needed to be joined by an untraditional sound - their outing at the Rickshaw Stop featured Heather Mcintosh on delay pedal'd cello, to great effect - but instead we had a standard four-piece rock lineup, which really brought the band down a level that night. When Andrew busted out the Stones' "2000 Man" - a great choice of a cover for them - it felt like he was desperately trying to bolster the energy level and salvage the night from the unenthusiastic performances that plagued most of the set.
Rieger is a perennial optimist, as far as I can tell - check out any interview with him in the last few years and you'll always find him gushing about how things are "really good" or "great" in the band, and expanding upon his enthusiasm for touring and recording. And if he's satisfied with the work his band is doing, I say more power to him. I will buy the next Elf Power record and see them when they pass through town again, and you know - I am warming to In a Cave. But I remain confused about the direction the band is going - and I hope it's not further inward.