Along with Apples in Stereo and Of Montreal, Elf Power are one of the few bands from the infamous Elephant 6 Recording Company collective to continue performing. Some of the best-known and better-received groups from the collective have either soldiered on or disbanded altogether. After releasing the fantastic When Your Heartstrings Break, Beulah spent the next two albums dodging the Elephant 6, hippie, twee-pop stigma. The collective’s finest group, Neutral Milk Hotel, disbanded after the wonderful, haunting and dark In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, with enigmatic front man Jeff Magnum all but disappearing from music scene.
Elf Power has largely been responsible for tripped-out psychedelic pop songwriting, creating new worlds for their particular brand of fuzzed out hippie rock. Thus it is with a bit of surprise that their seventh full-length, Walking with the Beggar Boys finds the group playing it straight. As that magnificent asshole, Simon Cowell, is so fond of saying on American Idol lately, Elf Power seems to be playing it “safe”.
It is somewhat of a surprising tactic given the group’s history. Their third album, Creatures, was produced by the Flaming Lips frequent collaborator Dave Fridmann, and previous releases are certainly not wanting in truly unique visions of songwriting. And it is against this background that Walking With The Beggar Boys comes across as just—ordinary. Heavily influenced by the stylings of ‘60s and ‘70s groups like the Byrds and the guitar rock of T. Rex, Elf Power’s effort at mature songwriting simply plays out as FM-lite.
This type of review is particularly difficult to write as there is nothing bad about the album per se. It’s enjoyable, easy to listen to, you can nod your head to it, and it is simply very bland. It lacks the visionary scope that Of Montreal often brings to the table with their records or the intense personality of Neutral Milk Hotel. Rather than playing to their strengths, it seems Elf Power is trying to carve a progressive niche for themselves as accomplished songsmiths, but have ended up sounding like everyone else. There isn’t anything here that I can recommend to a person that has never heard Elf Power before, and longtime fans are surely in for a surprise.
Occasionally the band will step things up a notch, and create a small nugget of a melody that will wind its way into your brain. The title track finds some nice call and response vocals that will be humming in your head long after the CD is over. “The Cracks” find some nicely distorted drum machine beats introducing a refreshingly darker number that is not unlike the Decemberists meet David Bowie. “Don’t Let It Be” is a faux-Kinks rave up that will surely find itself on mix tapes around college campuses by summer’s end.
Too bad these moments are few and far between. Elf Power are a band limitless talent and vision and it’s somewhat disappointing to see the group playing against themselves. The family friendly bar band shtick that seems to pervade most of Walking with the Beggar Boys is the sign of a band no longer looking to take chances or challenge themselves.