In a Cave is the strongest Elf Power record in a while, meshing their old fuzz with their newer, stripped down folk.
It is a good omen for the music world when a band like Elf Power releases a new album. They represent a certain type of band -- they have a solid local name (in Athens, Georgia), they have a loyal but small fan base, and they've never been fully embraced by influential critical circles. But they still push on, touring constantly and releasing solid records that are occasionally brilliant -- particularly A Dream in Sound and Creatures.
And now they're back again with In a Cave, and this record is not just a celebration of a career continued, but also a return to form of sorts. Their last two albums, Walking with the Beggar Boys and Back to the Web, found the band shaking off their fuzzy beginnings and indulging in their folkier side. It worked on Back to the Web, because the album had songs strong enough to stand that bare, but Walking with the Beggar Boys didn't fare as well, and it felt weak in the wake of the powerhouse Creatures.
In a Cave is a balancing act for the band, as they meld their newer, cleaner sound with the old Elephant 6 fuzz, and it makes for an album that is always interesting, and often fantastic. "Owl Cut (White Flowers in the Sky)" sets the tone with a fuzzed-out waltz full of blips and beeps that break the song up as it goes. It is a rocky path to the next track, "Spiral Stairs", which is the band's best track in years. The song is quicker and catchier than most of their recent output, and puts a distorted bass line front-and-center to give the song some serious muscle behind its endlessly catchy melody.
In fact, the album on a whole has a good amount of muscle. While Elf Power stick close to their ethereal (and sometimes Dungeons & Dragons) folk roots, In a Cave amps up the rhythm section and these songs tend to fill out more than tracks on the last two albums. There is also a nice balance between the direct flow of some tracks, and the busted-up experiments of others. "A Tired Army" sounds like misplaced puzzle pieces being punched into place, and works well against the smooth ride of the next track, "Paralyzed". The electro-Celtic feel of "The New Mythology" charges the listener up for the more subtle texture of "Fried Out". The album continually goes back and forth, and never quite decides on what it is. Is it straightforward pop? Or is it something more experimental? That Elf Power never decides is a major asset for the album, since to decide one way or another would negate the album's variety and element of surprise.
Lyrically, In a Cave is no less perplexing than other records. Andrew Rieger isn't afraid of the four-line verse, or the simple hard-rhyme couplet. But where he goes within those strict parameters is often strange and otherworldly. With tracks like "The New Mythology" and "Softly Through the Void", these songs are no less mysterious than other Elf Power songs. But, in typical Rieger fashion, he manages to ground his lyrical mysticism in very real feeling. The questions he raises, of faith and one's place in an alienating world, are very current, they just happened to be filtered through lyrics that can be antiquated. You can feel some of the band's timeliness paying homage to things that came before -- particularly European folk traditions -- but the emotion behind them is something very much of today, and something the band owns and makes its own.
In a Cave is a fantastic addition to the Elf Power canon. And while they may never become complete critical darlings, if they can keep going and keep putting out records like this, they'll always have a devoted audience to play to.