Walking with the Beggar Boys
melody can only take you so far. Sure, it’s typically the most direct, most instantaneously intoxicating aspect of pop music, but if it were the only point of intrigue, we’d all be just as sauced by the most recent Blink 182 or Good Charlotte as we are by Outkast or Radiohead (and, yes, that collective ‘we’ might not be as inclusive as I intended it to be). As further listens degrade the tangible goodies of the too-easy melody, we look beyond instantaneous attraction for something to hold us down the line, something that will give an aging album a novelty that brings us back. On their sixth album, Walking with the Beggar Boys, the former Elephant 6 collective member, Elf Power, has traded in their whimsical psych for broken-backed alt-country, and the trade seems to have left them bereft of ideas. Their songs are as instantly appealing as ever, but too-deep inspection shows their floorboards are cheap planks of country plywood; there’s no gorgeous hardwood underneath those tattered carpets, friends, so don’t even think about stripping them up.
With the entwined acoustic and electric guitars that Uncle Tupelo used to such novel gains in the early-nineties dominating most of these songs, Elf Power finds itself treading water already urinated in by other swimmers. Christ, even the self-perpetuating deity himself Ryan Adams has long since dried himself off and gone on to goth-inspired eighties rock. Yet here it is again, in all of its rustic urbanity, the corn-husk-dry entanglements of steady acoustic guitar, locked-down drumming, and faux-punk guitar chords. Add an eviscerated Stones riff here, a squall of post-Spacemen feedback here, and some greasy-barbecue backroads percussion and watch the whole pile sink like a stone as soon as it enters your stereo.
As beautiful as many of these songs are in terms of immediacy, their lackluster instrumentation never allows them any lasting appeal. The anthemic “Never Believe” chugs on diesel atop barely discernable synths, but runs out of gas far too early; while “Drawing Flies” sounds like an outtake even Guided by Voices abandoned, and with Pollard’s manic output, you know they don’t leave much behind. Melodies this easy tend to have a shelf-life of ten days, and even from two-feet I can smell the chunks.
On the two tracks where Elf Power steps out from this alt-country shadow, they surprise with their creativity. “The Cracks” sounds like the production crew accidentally left another band’s track on the album. With a mix of crackling programming and live drums, the fuzzy guitars stab at the edges of lead singer Andrew Rieger’s vocals, and the ragged, corrosive effect of its circus electronics build into the first instance of their instrumentation stepping up to the melodies. The jagged-dawn effect of the banjo added to their usual acoustic guitars on “Empty Pictures” augments another of their pennywhistle melodies with an interplay that, if included more often, might have coalesced into an astonishing effort.
Yet, with this effort falling flat, somehow I feel like life has settled into a loose conjunction with all things kismet, karma, and generally astrologically-aligned. Perhaps it’s the inherent lysergic-fingertipping of reviewing a member of the Elephant 6 Collective that makes me feel this way. After all, should any band with such a Day-Glo, perma-smile name as Elf Power really move beyond the mental shagfest of neo-psychedelia? The answer, apparently, is a stern “hells no.”