Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Elf Power": s/t: Music Review

This grows on you. Insects, dirt, bones, ghosts haunt this disc, dedicated to the late Vic Chestnutt. Elf Power, by self-titling their tenth (!) album, appear to let the churning, restless sounds backing wistful, literary, and yearning lyrics sum up their ambitions. The modesty of this homemade album, full of whirring keyboards, efficient percussion, chiming guitars, and processed snippets, continues their recent direction.

That is, progressing from the medieval instrumentation of such as "When the Red King Comes," this shifts away from the dense, early-Eno feel of their work towards a more pastoral approach, from "Walking with the Beggar Boys" onward. While I favor their earlier albums for their daring swirl, they have matured gracefully into a more direct manner of delivering stories as sung and played. With no lyric sheet, you have to pay attention; the graceful thoughts come slowly through the speakers.

There are still hints of their more experimental period, as on the psychedelic riff of "Boots of Lead," or the hints of a waltz on "Little Black Holes." For a band that's been around Athens, Georgia so long, they still stock their songs with textures, even if not as immediately "out of time" as their earlier work showed. Part of the Elephant 6 collective, five members are backed by as many backing musicians. I'm not sure who plays what, as the album credits are sparse, but repeated listenings open up depth in what feels at first a pared-down delivery.

Early R.E.M.'s recalled on "Like a Cannonball," with its echoes and distortions, but most songs sway with a more straightforward musical backing of, as the album progresses, increasingly literary narratives in a few minutes each. "Spidereggs," "Ghost of John," and "The Concrete and the Walls" form a trilogy exploring the underside of life; "Tiny Insects" marvelously conjures up the mystery and oddity of their half-glimpsed realm as it intersects with ours. This sort of Southern Gothic's not macabre, but somehow life-affirming, perhaps part of the message of this audio response to the passing of Chestnutt, a collaborator.

Andrew Rieger sings these short songs, and his pleasant, but not carefree, tone recalls the Southern college-rock ambiance of twenty-five or more years ago in the mixture of a more popular style with a faintly British invasion, prog-psych, folk-rock, and art rock mixed influence. Give this a chance to play a few times, and the tales tucked inside will begin to unfold. Good accompaniment for a restless night.

(Posted to Amazon US & Lunch.com 9-14-10; Elf Power website)

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