Music

Elf Power: Back to the Web

Once-lo-fi band grows up, trades fantasy for folk on often-lovely album.


Elf Power

Back to the Web

Label: Rykodisc
US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24
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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.

7

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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