Since Elf Power first formed as the low-key recording project of Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter in 1994, the band has gone through a scattered cast of supporting players and a few different record labels. But throughout these varied metamorphoses, very little has changed within the band's basic range of sounds and ideas. It's only the outer form that has evolved, taking on different textures with each record.
On their fifth proper album, Creatures, Rieger and Carter and company indulge in all the familiar Elf Power earmarks -- moody instrumentation, sleepy singing, and lyrics colored with much fantasy imagery. Unfortunately, each song here has an unfortunate feeling of familiarity, sounding more than a little similar to every glum dragons-and-demons tale the band has spun in the past.
Perhaps it only seems this way because Elf Power has been responsible for such strong work prior to Creatures. While the band's debut, Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, was first released in extremely limited quantity (later reissued by the Arena Rock Recording Company) and thus not heard by many, the sophomore When the Red King Comes (Arena Rock) marked a superb showing, widely introducing those very visionary elements that now feel stale.
Two subsequent albums, 1999's A Dream in Sound (Arena Rock) and 2000's The Winter is Coming (Sugar Free), cemented Elf Power's position as one of the best second-generation Elephant 6 bands, right up there with the Minders and Beulah. Dream was arguably the band's landmark album, boasting the heady production trickery of David Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips), while Winter was less inventive but more earthy (and was only mastered by Fridmann).
Creatures is by no means a bad record. It's just not very imaginative, especially from a band that has staked a career on the endless scope of druggy, quasi-psychedelic imagination. The songs blend too quickly into a mid-tempo mush, with murky production values filling the open spaces where bright flashes of sonic genius would usually reside.
The opening "Let the Serpent Sleep" is catchy in a very pacified way, more intent to chime ponderously into the night than break off on an experimental tangent. "Everlasting Scream" is immediately more urgent, armed with boots-knocking garage distortion, but still it feels more serviceable than inspired. Then "The Creature" approaches classic folk balladry, though steeped in refrains like "I am the creature and I'll roam / I've lived a thousand times before". It's just not very exciting when compared to Elf Power classics like "Jane" and "The Separating Fault".
Andrew Rieger has always loved to narrate his songs from the odd perspective of a wild animal or monster, sometimes in the middle of a transformation between the two. There's a thematic consistency to his lyrics, painting fairy tale scenes almost as acutely as Helium's Mary Timony does with her recent solo work. Song titles like "Palace of the Flames" and "Visions of the Sea" alone should hint at what to expect from Rieger's noggin on Creatures, although longtime fans will recognize a certain dilution in the themes here.
Maybe the album's lack of inspiration and vivacity can be attributed to the recent departure of longtime member Bryan Poole, who left Elf Power to pursue his solo project, The Late B.P. Helium. It's hard to say, since Rieger and Laura Carter are working from the same time-honored formula, even in his absence. But it seems like a strange coincidence.
To be fair, the second half of Creatures feels more rugged and awake. "Things That Should Not Be" could be a return to form, gallivanting against fuzz and horns nicely. "Three Seeds", co-written by W. Cullen Hart of Olivia Tremor Control fame, is languid but richly painted with strings. The last few songs are equally impressive, finishing off the album on a promising note that makes you wish the whole thing stood as surefooted.
Newcomers to Elf Power may find themselves satisfied, and even pleased, with Creatures. Really, it's only the folks expecting a record on par with Dream or Winter that stand to be disappointed. Still, the band's next outing would be best served by striking upon the same open-minded ingenuity as those previous albums and maybe bringing Fridmann back into the fold to produce. Otherwise, a sixth album may feel even more embryonic and asleep.