When Elf Power emerged in the mid-1990s as the young upstart of the Elephant 6 collective, it played the part of geeky younger sibling; while the other bands of the much-heralded consortium were apt to sing about anything from Jesus to Anne Frank, Elf Power focused mostly on creating mythic fantasy realms. Combined with its Elephant 6 lo-fi symphonic pop sound, this gave the band a sort of Guided by Tolkien aura that inexplicably avoided growing tiresome over the course of several consistently delightful albums. Of course, ringleader Andrew Rieger’s impeccable ear for melody didn’t hurt, crystallizing into classic pop confections like the irresistible “Jane” on 1999’s A Dream in Sound.
In recent years, Rieger has displayed a desire to grow up, abandoning his fantasy focus and stepping into real studios. On 2004’s Walking With the Beggar Boys, Elf Power tapped into a surprisingly muscular T. Rex rock sound, and the new Back to the Web represents the flip side of the coin, emulating the same band, but in its earlier, unabbreviated years of trippy folk. The result is a lush, hazy cloud of 12-string acoustic guitars, banjos, violins, and cellos raining down Rieger’s refreshing melodies, marred only by a bit of uncomfortable familiarity at times.
That rain metaphor isn’t unfounded: water provides the lyrical motif of Back to the Web, as a steady stream of droplets run down windows and “the sound of the rain on the sea” permeates opening track “Come Lie Down With Me (And Sing My Song)”. Rieger’s former caterwauling mewl has given way to a more restrained, albeit also more generic, vocal style, and this first song looks back past the rock tradition to pre-recorded folk traditionals for its inspiration. Insistently pounding drums bring a sudden spaciousness to the next track, “An Old Familiar Scene”, until that space is enclosed by swirling violins; the effect gives Rieger’s vocals a claustrophobic intensity as he spins a mysterious, vaguely ominous tale.
When the band returns to its gentler sound and aquiferous theme on “Rolling Black Water” the mood carries over; as far as symbols go, water is pretty open-ended, signifying anything from birth to the unconscious to sexual transmission, but Rieger’s haunted vocals here sound like he’s swimming the River Styx and knows where its current flows. Back to the Web sustains its potent dreamscape for several more tracks, cresting on the lovely “Peel Back the Moon, Beware!”: more water, a sense of dread so understated that its only overt acknowledgment comes in the title, and perhaps the album’s most shimmering melody, as Rieger narrates another cryptically romantic, rain-soaked episode.
Just when the album seems poised to transcend the existing Elf Power catalog, though, it stumbles into a stretch of derivative material. Rieger’s melodies are the band’s greatest strength, simple enough to seem instantly familiar and often unforgettable. Sometimes too familiar: the verses on “23rd Dream” contain more than a fleeting glimpse of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, and two tracks later on “The Spider and the Fly” a healthy dose of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” crops up uninvited. The worst transgression occurs between those tracks, on “Somewhere Down the River”. After a spirited string-skronk intro, the song launches into a guitar line so blatantly lifted from R.E.M.‘s “7 Chinese Bros.” that, a dozen listens in, I keep expecting that 1984-vintage Stipe mumble to open the first verse. It’s a bizarre bit of theft, given that the two bands share Athens, Georgia, origins, and reminiscent of another scandal related to Athens: the recent University of Georgia decision to recall author Brad Vice’s The Bear Bryant Funeral Train after discovering segments of the book were lifted from other Southern writers. Vice called the passages tributes, claiming they were so well known the homage was obvious; others called them plagiarism. I’m not sure what Elf Power was thinking, but they should have thought again.
After that misguided trio, Back to the Web nonetheless manages to regain its footing and close with several strong songs, including the effectively spartan near-fragment “Under the Northern Sky”. The title track closes things without ever explaining just what all that water was about, but even if it’s as mundane as the river of dreams, Elf Power floats to its own current, and Back to the Web‘s undertow exerts a powerful pull, despite the bit of flotsam it also carries.