Elf Power Walking with the Beggar Boys

[Orange Twin; 2004]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: psych-pop, indie rock, alternative rock
Others: the Apples in Stereo, the Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet, the Jayhawks

When Elephant 6 alums Beulah announced that their 2003 release would likely be their last unless it managed to move enough copies to actually put a little food on the table, they provided us with a nearly unprecedented moment of honesty in an industry, where grabbing for the brass ring is often the most shameful accusation that can be hung on an indie rock band. But as much as an unholy union of creativity and commerce seemed to be in the offing, that album, Yoko, was decidedly morose and sonically ambitious, representing neither a departure from the band's former catalogue nor an album with great commercial potential. Obviously, if they were trying to sell out, they weren't trying hard enough.

And while it would be crass and reductionistic to suggest that Elf Power's latest comes laden with the pretense of greatly expanding the band's following, the fact remains that Walking with the Beggar Boys is a departure of sorts for Athens' favorite E6ers. Where in the past they often seemed to offer the slightly nerdy, D&D-playing counterpoint to the psychedelic subversiveness of the first wave E6ers, here the band takes a surprisingly wide turn toward hi-fi conventionality with a warmly inviting mix of crisp lead guitar lassos, immediately palatable melodies, and clear vocals. Joined by former Olivia Tremor Control guitarist Eric Harris, the band nonetheless sounds more like Matthew Sweet pulling the strings on alternative country pioneers the Jayhawks than a revival of Harris' former band. What's surprising, then, is not just how generally tame and unequivocally un-trippy this release is but just how well their music holds up under such conditions.

From the Weezer-esque power chord crunch of "Drawing Flies" to the slightly askew and wistfully paranoid "Evil Eye," Elf Power has rarely found melodies more bubbly or arrangements more sunny than the ones ingrained in these tracks; and even if the album suffers slightly from a lack of textural or thematic variation, the mood never grows stale. As such, the relaxed feel that persists throughout the album lends many of the tracks an air much closer to country rock than the lo-fi psych-pop of their back catalogue. In fact, "Don't Let it Be" sounds nearly like a Tom Petty jangle rocker, just as the liltingly laidback "Invisible Men" could almost pass for an Eagles' track were it not for a few melancholy melodic turns. No doubt, the number of surreal, narrative-driven songs are greatly decreased, as well, with only the gorgeous cello and delicate electric guitar crosshatching of the vaguely mythical "The Stranger" revisiting that school of songwriting. Regardless, despite all the apparent conceptual subtractions, the band remains distinctive enough to retain its artistic character.

Add it all up and you have an album that works much better than it reasonably should, with the modus operandi at times seeming closer to the Friends theme than the Zombies. Still, for a band that most have assumed has a categorically great album in them, it is somewhat disappointing that they would play it so safe at this stage in their creative life. In the end, it's nothing so naked as a blatant audition for mainstream success, but it probably will rank as one of the year's most obviously enjoyable albums. Sometimes obvious isn't quite enough, though.

1. Never Believe
2. Walking With the Beggar Boys
3. Drawing Flies
4. The Stranger
5. Hole in My Shoe
6. The Cracks
7. Evil Eye
8. Don't Let It Be
9. Invisible Men
10. Empty Picture
11. Big Thing

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