Somewhere between the average garage band’s angst-filled music and Elf Power’s beautiful, child-like melodies as demonstrated on their newest material, lies the sound of Elf Power’s 1995 effort Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, now re-released.
For those who have only heard this part of the Elephant 6 collective via their breakthrough album, 1998’s Dream in Sound, Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs (which now includes their The Winterhawk EP) will likely be a shock. The two albums are so different, both sonically and lyrically, that one of the few things they have in common is simply that they are both well-crafted.
In fact, after listening to both of these CDs, one can’t help but wonder “what happened?” If Dream in Sound is like reading a children’s book, then listening to Vainly clutching at Phantom Limbs is more like finding your teenage-goth-brother’s hidden journal: every tenth page may be a happy entry about a romantic night with some girl, but all the pages in between are about his enemies and his wish to get away from it all.
Of course, indie-sounding anger can be channeled really well, and Elf Power come pretty close to doing that. In “Finally Free” lyricist Andrew Rieger sings, “I wish you all away, so far away, away from me / I never understood why you were my enemies / You took those drunk nights, those pot fights to seriously / Now I’m finally free.” The lyrics may be typical of this genre of music, yet Rieger’s voice boils with a kind of quiet resistence, which helps make this track one of the best on the record.
Along with “Finally Free,” other standout tracks include: “Loverboy’s Demise,” an oddly morbid (and humorous) song about being disappointed by a favorite band’s live show; and “All Your Experiments,” which strongly hints at what was to come on Dream in Sound. The song tells a story about being abducted by aliens and choosing to stay with them rather than go back to earth.
Clearly a product of the early ‘90s lo-fi revival, Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs is more like one of Sebadoh’s better releases than a traditional poppy, ‘60s revivalist Elephant 6 CD. Elf Power use distorted vocals, feedback, and a variety of oddly spaced, non-sequential, and out-of-tune sounds. Like Modest Mouse, all of this is packaged into songs which leave you so impressed that those noises came together to form an okay song, the fact that it isn’t the most catchy, depressing, or beautiful song, doesn’t really seem to matter.
Despite its strengths, Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, as with many band’s reissues, isn’t exactly worth running out to buy, and it certainly isn’t a good introduction to what, based on Dream in Sounds, promises to be a continuously growing and beautifully sounding band. However, for hard-core fans, the CD is definitely an interesting listen and a good chance to hear how the band has dramatically changed over the years.