"A Tired Army" from the album In a Cave
"Paralyzed" from the album In a Cave
It's difficult to identify the strange, creaky, sometimes eerie sounds on Elf Power's new 13-song album In a Cave, released last week on the Rykodisc label. While the veteran Athens, Ga., indie-rock band's previous effort Back to the Web took an unexpected "gypsy/eastern" musical approach, this new stuff veers into deeper rock 'n' roll weirdness altogether.
Written by vocalist/guitarist Andrew Rieger and newly-enlisted drummer Eric Harris (formerly of Athens' psych/pop-rock band Olivia Tremor Control), In a Cave swings between two distinctive styles and/or personalities: the familiar classic "Elf" rock sound with four-chord verses and a foggier, melancholic, more trance-like atmosphere. It's another strange step forward for the longtime associates of the acclaimed Elephant 6 collective.
"It's not really conceptual," Rieger says of the new album. "Eric brought in several instrumental demos of songs. I came up with lyrics, melodies, and arrangements. That was a different way of writing, which yielded some interesting results. Eric's contributions to the albums were valuable. He actually made a magic tape organ, which is basically a thrift-store mellotron [an electro-mechanical, polyphonic keyboard, first used on Harris' The Frosted Ambassador album] where you can choose different instruments to drone on notes. It makes a really warbly, dreamy, psychedelic sound, which adds to the mix.
"It is a mix of the more classic Elf Power straight-ahead rock songs with some slightly weirder arrangements and interludes," the frontman adds.
"A Tired Army" epitomizes the drowsy/trancy side of things, with a distorted 6/8 drum beat, plunky saloon piano, mysterious creaks and groans. It's like a theme song to a pilled-out slow dance at the Syd Barrett weirdo prom. "Window to Mars" is an even a loopier dream state, with warped keyboards, and backward guitar work. The classic Elf sound is all over "Paralyzed," a reverb-laced, slightly rockabilly number that resembles The Feelies. A T. Rex-meets-Ringo Starr sound propels "New Lord."
"I feel like we have our influences. We have an original sound, but I'm not going to deny that we're inspired by people like T. Rex, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, and others. We may try to emulate some of those sounds that they've done in the past, but we try to make it our own, you know?"
Bassist Derek Almstead (formerly of Of Montreal) acted as main engineer and producer on most of the sessions. Rieger says Almstead, Harris, and guitarist/keyboardist Jimmy Hughes comprise the current touring version of Elf Power. Laura Carter is busy in the Athens area with various Orange Twin projects, while cellist/guitarist Heather McIntosh has recently been recruited to play on the forthcoming Gnarls Barkley tour.
"We're still a loose, fun rock band," says Rieger. "We don't try to reproduce all of the sounds on the records in a live setting."
The chemistry comes naturally for Rieger and whoever may be in the gallery on any given tour or session. It's a casual rotation of seasoned, like-minded musicians, collaborating without distraction.
"That hasn't changed too much between the people who've come and gone," Rieger says. "Everybody always adds their own flavor. The rhythm section this time around is probably the best we've ever had. Eric and Derek really lock in together and go for it — and that's really cool. They come from great bands, and they instinctively know how to make a sound song better. It frees me up as a songwriter and singer from having to worry about guiding anyone along."