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"This past summer," says Andrew Rieger, "we were in Kyoto, Japan, and there was a great crowd came out, they were really into it. And when we were done with the show, they all, all the kids, they grabbed us and made us start dancing with them. For about two hours after the show we were dancing on tables and drinking with all the people who'd come out to see us. That was a lot of fun. That response is really rare, though. You don't get that kind of reaction everywhere. Of course, there's a big pop scene and a big noise scene in Japan."
And where does Elf Power fall in that spectrum?
"Oh, well . . . I hope we touch a little of both."
In just about a week, Rieger and the rest of Elf Power's five-person crew will drag their pop-noise in a long, wide oval around the lower 48, in support of The Winter Is Coming, the band's new album on Sugar Free Records. And though they might not end up coerced into dancing on tables, exactly, there's evidence that Elf Power's domestic fan base is no less hardy than the band itself. "The last time we played out [in the States], there was a show where only one guy showed up to hear us. One guy and maybe three other people in the place. But that one guy had driven from some remote town, like a hundred miles away, he said, to hear the show. So . . . we rocked out for that guy," Rieger says, laughing.
Strange, this application of the phrase "rocked out" to a brand of music that's equal parts noise and witty, sometimes (he whispered) brainy pop, like someone took Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle and smacked it upside the instrumentation with a ball-peen hammer. But it seems to fit, particularly when you give The Winter Is Coming a hard listen.
Rieger's been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick, the paranoiac speculative fiction novelist, over the past weeks. He's also just made it through Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger, which (Rieger reports) is filled, like most of Wilson's books, with a conspiracy theory-centered lunatic brilliance. In the work of both these writers, events that seem ordinary and commonplace can rapidly turn surreal, as if the skein of everyday life were pulled back to reveal an essential, ever-present psychosis beneath; and without arguing for direct influence, it's easy to spot similar moments on Elf Power's latest album.
There's the song "The Great Society," for example -- a simple I-IV-V chord progression, with bar chords on the downbeats driving the simplest of melodies, sweetly harmonized by several voices: "Spiders laugh/Demons cry/Babies jump/Over the fire . . . /Giants roam/Through the woods/Singing songs/Feeling good." Sounds idyllic; were the music not so boisterous, it might serve as a lullaby (it's no weirder, after all, than songs about babies balanced in treetops and such). But then there's that line, the one you miss until the second or third listen: "Space has eaten off your face/You won't need it anyway." And that sudden cataclysm of power tools and saws and hammers that erupts after the final chorus: the sound of the Great Society being built, revealed when all the singing has been stripped away. Something's a little shaky in the kingdom.
Or the album's opener, "Embrace the Crimson Tide," a song that (like a few others here) floats a series of startling and sometimes sinister images on a steady, powerful drone: "When the captain pulls you under/Trees uproot, begin to wander/Leaves they grew like sons and daughters/Rest down deep beneath the water." Underneath you'd swear it's Mo Tucker, not longtime drummer Aaron Wegelin, providing that flat, primal pulse. And then there's the minor-chord, Middle Eastern threnody and howling-wind effects on "Wings of Light"; when Rieger sings about those wings coming to take you home, your best bet is to flatten yourself out and grab a tight hold on whatever's nearby.
It's not that the album itself is taken up with threatening images as a whole, but there's a definite sense of foreboding to The Winter Is Coming, reflected even in the title itself. "It's not something we went for consciously," says Rieger. "I only notice it when people point it out. I do think this album is a little darker, but we didn't set out to alter the songwriting that way; we just tried some different things out this time.
"Like those noises on 'The Great Society,' all those hammers and saws -- we'll throw in anything, experiment with different effects or modulate the tape speed. It was a little easier for this album because we recorded it mostly at home, and a little bit in a friend's studio. We had a lot more time to play around. 'Wings of Light,' that's a song that wasn't even written, really. A couple of us were messing around, and we came up with this melody, sort of, and over the next two months when we played it, different people would add things to it, and it changed around a lot. And before we recorded it, I played around with improvising different lyrics. It kept changing every time we played it . . . sort of like using the recording machines as a songwriting tool."