[23 September 2010]
The whole notion of the “psychedelic” cultural scene that first bloomed in the mid-1960s is firmly anchored in a vast history of sharply divided opinions, of flowery love and righteous hate. There was definitely something palpable brewing, but what were these cats on about, anyway?
“These backward guitar loops and lyrics about moon goddesses and Mary Jane can really alter your mind and transport you to other realms of existence, man!”
“Wait a second—the only place you’ve been transported is to the Taco Bell drive-thru!”
Woodstock is still the greatest music festival of all-time, but, ya know, those hippies supposedly really smelled. At the end of the day, one man’s “Far out!” is another’s “Fuck off (and get a real job)!”
Elf Power carry the psychedelic torch like a beacon of hazed hope, clinging to a genre that is slowly becoming nothing more than a descriptive crutch in most critics’ adjective reservoirs. One of the early bands to cement themselves as part of the Athens, Georgia collective Elephant Six, Elf Power have been around a pretty long time—since 1994, with anywhere from 11 to 13 albums under their belts, depending on what you consider an “album”. Their tripped-out sound never broke through commercially or even critically, as opposed to other Elephant Six titans like Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and the Apples in Stereo, who have found plenty.
Elf Power’s last release, 2008’s In a Cave, met an especially mixed critical reaction, which only casts a more interesting light on the critical acclaim for their collaboration with fellow Athens, Georgia native, Vic Chesnutt, 2008’s Dark Developments, where Elf Power served as backing band for the singer/songwriter. This raises some questions, like: is Elf Power merely a great instrumental act struggling to find a compelling set of songs?
The good news is that, with this self-titled release, they’ve found a batch of material that mostly raises the bar. There are plenty of highlights: “The Concrete and the Walls” is a spirited track with a muscular bassline and an absorbing orgy of trippy sounds. Pianos tinkle, violins saw and synths flow. This is very good. “Stranger in the Window” has an earnest singer/songwriter quality and the great throwaway line, “Tell me your secret / If you’d like to meet the freak inside my mind / In the dead of midnight.”
The more bells and whistles, the better. Elf Power sounds fantastic, with the band reveling in small production details that really knock you out on headphones. Check out the way Eric Harris’ toms pop in the intro to “Spider Eggs”. Feel the power in the jaw-dropping transition from the rootsy-boogie verses in “Like a Cannonball” to that track’s flanged, stereo-panned chorus. With its chaotic stylistic bursts, “Cannonball”’ is a maximum head trip. Its only arguable flaw is its awkward lyrical similarity to Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova” line, “Slowly walking down the hall/Faster than a cannonball”. But I could be on my own with that one.
The bad news: Andrew Rieger’s voice, possibly the defining element of the band’s sound, is also its most predictable. His vocal rhythms tend to follow the exact same patterns song to song, While the dude has undeniably smooth and pleasing-sounding pipes, perfect for Elf Power’s authentic psychedelia, he’s not exactly the most eclectic vocalist around.
Fittingly, the most engaging moments on Elf Power have nothing to do with singing, such as the last 15 seconds of “Tiny Insects”, where the nimble guitar/bass groove is fleetingly unearthed from beneath the pop song structure, finally breathing, alive with the promise of a fine krautrock jam. When the songs begin to take priority over the production, things go farthest astray. Maybe there’s something to that instrumental band theory, after all…
The psychedelic age lives on. Typically, it’s still a genre that elicits strong responses in either direction—just as it should. The worst thing you can say about both Elf Power and Elf Power is that, too often, they operate squarely in the middle, where opinions and tunes are half-formed or refusing to bloom.