We’ve probably all heard of a ‘herd of elephants,’ a ‘gaggle of geese,’ a ‘pride of lions’ and maybe even a ‘destruction of wild cats,’ but what about a ‘pageantry of elves?’ Elf Power, the Athens, Georgia based band that stemmed from the Elephant Six collective (ah, one of the herd!) is back with their, can you believe it, eighth studio album! It’s been over ten years since Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter started the neo-psychedelic band and 2006 is proving to be one hell of a year for Elf Power, no relation to Cat, Raw, or Tower of, as far as I know. They’ve signed to Ryko, their first foray with a subdivision of a major, and they’ve been tabbed by the Shins to play All Tomorrow’s Parties. So why now? Well, it all has to do with their new album, Back to the Web. This shadowy and lushly orchestrated affair is draped in mystery, swathed in folk, and doused in rock, possibly making it Elf Power’s best album so far.
Of course, like any band that has been around for as long as Elf Power has, a new album boasting a new sound can be a double-edged sword. Fans of the act’s previous lo-fi psychedelic work might be put off by the cleaner acoustic sound and intricate production work and new fans, though they may be introduced to this new material, may not delve too deeply into the back catalog. Rest assured, however, there’s more than enough in Back to the Web to satisfy both camps. Opener “Come Lie Down With Me (And Sing My Song)” shares some space with some of the freak-folk bands like Espers, especially with the weepy cello. “An Old Familiar Scene” steps up the tempo, with somewhat the epic feel of early songs by U2 or Big Country while highlighting even further Rieger’s magnificent Nico-meets-Bonnie `Prince’ Billy vocal style.
As song after song drifted past my eardrums, I began to notice that the album as a whole reminded me of something. Whether it was merely a sensation created by the collection of songs, the jangly acoustic guitars, the obtuse and mysterious lyrics, or all three, I felt I was listening to a sequel to fellow Athenians R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant. Songs like “King of Earth” and “Peel Back the Moon, Beware!” contain such strong sense memories of LRP that I was immediately swooning (it’s one of my favorite albums of all time). But it’s not just straight R.E.M. It’s as if Belle & Sebastian ganged up with Stipe, Buck and Mills and wrote music that was to be arranged by Sufjan Stevens. “23rd Dream” is likely to receive lots of criticism for sounding like a carbon copy of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” but I think that works in their favor. The Floyd needed some folkifying with a banjo!
The second half of the album has more of the darker material such as “The Spider and the Fly” and the incessant oncoming beat of “Forming.” But for those who are into the glammy rock of T. Rex, then “All the World is Waiting” is for you! This is Slider-era Bolan at its best. “Under the Northern Sky” again brings this down to basics and showcases the delicate voice of Rieger, probably one of the most underrated vocalists in independent music. The title track closes the album with Disintegration style lyrics and early Velvet Underground music as if it were written for the show Firefly.
“An Old Familiar Scene,” “Peel Back the Moon, Beware!” and “All the World is Waiting” are reason enough to pick up this gem of an album, though each track is as rewarding as the next, making it one of the most consistently great albums of 2006. One of the reasons that Life’s Rich Pageant is so fantastic is that it is like mythology, history lesson, poetry and guitar rock all wrapped up into one consistent package. Back to the Web can be given the same distinction as Rieger, Carter and company have put together a beautiful `pageantry’ of songs. When Sam Gamgee said he always wanted to `see the elves,’ I think he was talking about Elf Power.