ALBUM REVIEW: Elf Power – ‘Elf Power’

Elf Power

Elf Power
Elf Power
[Orange Twin Records 2010]


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This review first appeared on in August. Much thanks goes to Chuck Norton for letting me repost it here.

I’ll confess that I missed out on the Elephant 6 heyday. I was too busy listening to my punk and hardcore records to care about some fuzzy, lo-fi psych-pop, no matter how elegantly conceived or poetically delivered.

While I could respect a Neutral Milk Hotel or the Apples in Stereo, all that eclectic experimentation and neo-psychedelia just didn’t jive with me. I wanted volume, angular riffs, angst, abrasion.

Over the years, as my tastes expanded, I’ve made my way back to those groundbreaking bands and defining records—Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the Oliva Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist Castle, the Apples in Stereos’ Tone Soul Evolution.

Making up for lost time, as it were.

But for whatever reason, Elf Power never garnered a whole lot of my attention. With the exception of 2004’s acclaimed Walking with the Beggar Boys, which managed to find its way into my rotation for a couple of weeks before fading into memory, the longtime E6 holdovers have existed only on the periphery of my musical consciousness: a MySpace stream here, a shared mp3 there.

So it’s safe to say that I arrive at Elf Power’s latest LP, their eponymously-titled tenth effort, with something of a clean slate and open mind. No pesky back history to contend with, no weighty expectations. And, as the album opens, my first impressions are promising.

Ringing electric guitars wrap themselves around a shuffling acoustic that cradles Andrew Rieger’s beautifully sedated vocals on “The Taking Under.” It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it floats along like a warm breeze, solidly crafted and skillfully executed. Meanwhile, the rollicking follow-up, “Wander Through,” is an animated psych-rock stomper that rumbles across your speakers with a fuzzy boogie beat leading the charge. The band sounds fresh here, comfortable and loose.

They capitalize effectively on their musical risk-taking and allow their eclectic collection of traditional instruments and quirky electronic flourishes to build and merge into an organic whole. Indeed, only two songs down and I already feel like I might be prepared to buy in.

Unfortunately, the album’s early momentum fades as the album drags on. The lackluster “Stranger in the Window” enters innocently enough with a strummed acoustic guitar and scattered percussion, but as the melodies develop, the song meanders into increasingly rote indie rock territory that veers dangerously close to adult contemporary material. The same staid air fills “Like a Cannonball,” a tepid, mid-tempo rocker that comes and goes without leaving any discernible imprint.

These consecutive misfires almost derail the majestic “Boots of Lead,” which glides in triumphantly in a swirl of hazy guitars and crashing drums. It’s a mid-album highlight that almost single-handedly sets the album back on track.

But just as it appears that the band has regained its footing and the music is about to hit its stride, the band stumbles for good with the lifeless “Spider Eggs” followed by the canned “Ghost of John,” a frustratingly even-handed number that promises the possibility of dramatic eruption, but never delivers. By the time the droll Celtic-folk of “Little Hand” closes out the album, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

Without a true frame of reference it’s difficult to say for sure, but this album leaves me with the impression that Elf Power is capable of so much more. All the components appear to be there—the performances are tight, the production is crisp and Rieger is reliably solid throughout—but nothing truly exemplary ever materializes.

Throughout the entire record, I keep anticipating that one gorgeous passage, that one sublime melody that will carry me off into some blissful psych-pop daydream. But it never arrives.

Yes, there are a few breakout moments, but mostly it’s just middling—sometimes good, but never great. Frankly, I’d rather just listen to some old hardcore records.

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