There’s much to like about Neutral Milk Hotel’s return to touring. For one, it seems to be on Jeff Mangum’s terms. Secondly, it’s a bit of a victory lap for an album (In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) that has become a cult classic since its release. Of course, it’s also a way for us to publicly pat ourselves on the back for getting on board in a way we couldn’t before. It’s a reunion tour in every sense. A celebration of great music, surely, but also kind of frozen in time.
So maybe a more undersold excitement to this tour is the presence of Elf Power, a still-active pop act from Athens. They’re also a band that has hit its stride yet again. After drifting a bit on records like Walking with the Beggar Boys and In a Cave, Elf Power’s eponymous record last year, a tribute to Vic Chesnutt, was heartbreaking and excellent. And now, with Sunlight on the Moon, they shift their sound again and continue the mix of surprise and consistency you might expect (and not) from a band that’s been around this long.
The album veers away from the bittersweet clarity of sound they achieved on Elf Power. Instead, Andrew Rieger, Laura Carter, and company filter their honed soundcraft through their early-career love of lo-fi fuzz. Of course, this isn’t so much low fidelity as it is carefully considered gauze, but it works none the less. Opener “Transparent Lines” glides on clean a drum machine and Rieger’s cracked-sugar voice. It’s a pinging acoustic hook and distant keys that scuff the song up some, as Rieger puzzles out a dream world that may or may not have a clear border to distance it from reality. “A Grey Cloth Covering My Face” is more upfront with his haze, letting distorted guitar buzz over the track while a simple tambourine rattles the smooth strumming the song is built on. Later, songs like the title track and “Darkest Wave” pick the tempo up and make these elements sound more muscled. The former is a power-pop gem, the latter an intimate folk thumper, but both quicken the pulse in interesting times.
These meshes between the smooth and the scuffed, between the sweet and the stinging are fitting for a record that seems to deal in distances. It’s an album still interested in death – in images of darkness and stillness and even war – but it also shows how life can get between things. There is all kinds of openings on the record, doors in particular, but often people don’t pass through them. Instead, they look from one side of the threshold at someone or something far off in the distance. Elf Power has always had its own sort of mythology in its music, just enough of the fantastic to make it seem otherworldly. Their best recent work, though, has concerns rooted deeply in terra firma. The best parts of this record do that just. Sure, there are demons on, say, “Manifestations”, but it’s important to note that “time’s long reach” here is compared to “an underground stream.” It is part of the world, part of the land this record travels across. That album title, in the end, is not about where these emotions play out but rather how they’re lit, by the hopeful light of day or the gray isolated shine of night.
The balance of fuzz and clarity is a careful one, and the scales do tip here and there. “Strange Designs” has guitars that crunch nicely, but the drum machine under it feels too thin to hold the weight of that chug. “Chromosome Blues” has a similar problem, where interesting and thick textures fall through the melting ice of a plodding beat. Elsewhere, the band’s signature sound seems too eager to borrow from others. “Darkest Wave”, a solid track, is nearly undone by a riff that copies “Paint It Black” almost wholesale, while “Things Lost” feels a bit like Elf Power doing Elf Power, a song that could be stuck into any of their albums without upsetting the mix.
But even when things seem to stumble a bit, Elf Power never loses its charm. The band has found a knack over time for addressing more approachable and bittersweet emotions while also opening up a playful streak in their music. Sunlight on the Moon is not the best Elf Power record, which would be a tough task for a band with so much great output, but it’s another sign of the band’s lasting sound and continued growth.
- "A Grey Cloth Covering My Face" Soundcloud