tandard Elephant 6 fare” is how I heard one person describe the line-up of last Monday’s show at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA, a split bill consisting of the Gerbils and Elf Power. This remark came well before the show began and, quite possibly, before the speaker had ever heard either of the bands’ music played. Such can be the curse of an association with one of the most talked about and oversimplified musical collectives of the late ‘90s. Since its unofficial inception as the avant-garde purveyor of indie rock, most famously spawning Neutral Milk Hotel and The Apples in Stereo, the bands involved in the Elephant 6 Collective are assumed to sound the same, simply because they share members or live in the same city. And then there are the comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel within the collective. In the indie rock world, NMH front man Jeff Mangum is the closest thing to a living King Midas. The Gerbils’ front man Scott Spillane, guitarists John D’Azzo and Will Westbrook, and drummer Jeremy Barnes are also members of Neutral Milk Hotel, so it’s not surprising that comparisons are frequently made between the two groups.
Interestingly, the Gerbils and Elf Power seems to derive at least as much their musical influences from Lou Reed or Brian Eno as they do the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev. The combination of horns with march-tempo drumming is arguably the most intense aspect of the Gerbils’ music. Yet it’s a tough feat to replicate live—or at least without sounding discordant. Seeing The Circulatory System perform in this same space a few months ago, I was reassured from previous Elephant 6 experiences that were, at best, hit or miss. And while I too am guilty of assuming Jeff Mangum has the Midas touch, the copious amounts of energy that the Circulatory System as a whole devoted towards their instrument was impressive. The sounds did not always mesh but they complimented each other simply in their ferociousness. It’s the plethora of interesting sounds that the collective is famous for—in the Circulatory System’s case, the most unique on stage was a vacuum cleaner “played” by former Chocolate USA singer (and current Music Tapes’ member) Julian Koster. Sometimes it works, and sometimes…you wish you were instead listening with a walkman and a good pair of headphones. Sadly, this seemed to be the case for the Gerbils as the gorgeous melodies that come across clear on their recordings were lost underneath the fusion of the crowd, poor speakers, and general lack of atmosphere.
The Gerbils on stage appeared to be what you might call “fried” indie rock. They looked like a band that would be most comfortable playing in a small town bar in the middle of Ohio. And quite frankly, they’d probably be the town treasure. Each band member commanded a unique presence, particularly Spillane. With his longish white beard and hat, he could have passed for an Amish heavy metal fan. While Gerbils’ drummer Jeremy Barnes was, according to the text on the band’s website “getting married to a woman in Europe,” E6 everyman Eric Harris was filling in on drums. Elf Power’s Laura Carter joined him on stage for double drum duty and it was that aspect of the band’s sound that was the most significant throughout their set. They opened with the traditional ballad, “Hangman” and Spillane’s voice wrapped deep around the words—sounding surprisingly similar to Johnny Cash. After that, though, it was closer to Black Francis. They performed mostly songs from their late 2001 release, The Battle of Electricity. The crowd bounced a little here and there, but overall most seemed uninterested. Of course, the Middle East is a haven for jaded indie rockers and college radio deejays that exhale cynicism so there’s not much of a yardstick to measure by. Without bemoaning the sound quality too much, let’s just say that the Gerbils are a much more distinguished and enjoyable band on record than their performance at the Middle East conveyed. Spillane’s lyrics are eons more accessible than some of their E6 cohorts, and they were lost in the fuzz of distortion and muddy sound quality. The band played a decent amount of time, before ending in a somewhat undefined “encore” of sorts that resulted in most of the members leaving the stage unexpectedly.
Elf Power was on stage a mere fifteen minutes later. Andrew Reiger, the Elves’ front man and principle songwriter, ushered out a greeting in his soft-spoken but engaging deep Southern accent. The crowd seemed to welcome the difference in sound quality; the band played on to their welcoming nods and slight pogo movements. This was my third time seeing Elf Power and the first since the departure of bassist Bryan Poole (who now devotes time to his solo project, The Late PB Helium) last year. The first song of their set was also the first track from their May release Creatures, the catchy “Let the Serpent Sleep”. They followed that with the next two songs from the album. It was on the fourth son g—the edgy rocker “Skeleton” from their acclaimed 2000 release The Winter Is Coming—that the band’s sound came together. “Visions of the Sea” and “Three Seeds” were also high points that signify a departure from the fuzzy, drone rock that characterized earlier releases. Instead, Elf Power’s newest material is evidence of a more polished repertoire of evocative lyrics mixed with lush melodies. The set ended with a series of cover songs, which seems fitting as the band is set to release a covers-only record sometime next year. Their version of Bad Brains’ “Pay To Cum” was a scorcher, while David Bowie’s “Five Years” finished the night in a fitting tribute.
A good night with Elephant 6 opens infinite aural possibilities—and knowing that seems to unfairly raise one’s expectations. Like Bowie says, “My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare / I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.” The sheer expansion of possibilities that exist within the E6 collective is enough to make you feel that, when it’s off, the space or the timing is superfluous or just plain tedious. But when it’s on, the air up there is wonderful to breathe.