Elf Power: Creatures

Doug Wallen

Elf Power


Label: spinART
US Release Date: 2002-05-07
UK Release Date: 2002-05-27

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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.