Winter Hawks

Athens, Georgia's Elf Power takes a slightly dark turn with its latest

"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."

Elephant 6'ers Elf Power: From Athens with love.
Kimba Kuzas
Elephant 6'ers Elf Power: From Athens with love.

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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."

Elf Power's let-it-happen approach to writing and recording is also evident in the formulation of Elephant 6, a loose and totally informal collective of musicians, which encompasses members of Elf Power as well as players from Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel and Apples in Stereo. Elephant 6, whose early praises were sung by Michael Stipe in a 1998 Rolling Stone interview, is less a true group or a collective than a mutual support network. "It makes it easier," says Rieger, "when you've got a part you want to write for a song, say you have a violin part nobody in your group can play; you can go to someone else and they'll do it for you. We all record with each other, tour together; we've played all over each other's albums." True enough: Though Elf Power tours in its standard five-person incarnation, there are a total of 15 musicians from various Elephant 6-related bands working on The Winter Is Coming, a phenomenon that extends to most of the connected groups' releases.

Part of that fluidity comes naturally because, as Rieger observes, Athens, Georgia, the group's hometown, provides a tight community in which to work. "Back in the late '80s, when R.E.M. and the B-52's were really successful, a lot of people moved into town, you know, hoping they'd have the same kind of luck. A lot of those people have left since then," he says, not unkindly, "so it's kind of gone back to the way it was before. It's still a small town. But there's been a resurgence in the music coming out of here, I think. There's a lot of great stuff happening down here now.

"Until about three years ago, me and Laura [Carter, who's been with Elf Power since it was a two-person acoustic endeavor] were living in New York. We'd moved there from Georgia mostly because we wanted a change of pace." But after nine months of flogging their music at open-mike shows and producing an EP (1995's The Winter Hawk), Andrew and Laura moved back to Athens; there they reconnected with bassist Bryan Helium, who'd played with them during the earliest GA days, and drummer Wegelin.

"It was really hard to find like-minded people to play with in New York, and we wanted to expand Elf Power, make it more of a band. And we knew we had a lot of friends down here [in Athens] already, who were talented and who understood it, and were into helping out. So we came back."

Following that reentry, Elf Power expanded its roster -- violinist Adrian Finch is its most recent addition -- and turned out albums full of intelligent, wonky material, from 1997's When the Red King Comes to 1999's highly praised A Dream in Sound, which the straight press dug even if it harped too much on what it simplistically saw as Rieger's fantasy-drenched imagery.

This year offers, in addition to The Winter Is Coming, a reissue of the band's earliest album: the aggressively independent Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, recorded by Rieger and Carter at home on a four-track, of which precisely 55 copies were initially pressed. Vainly comes repackaged with the Winter Hawk EP, which is as laudable a search-and-rescue mission as any in recent memory.

Not a bad track record for a bunch of friends who still live in their hometown. "Even when we don't play together, when we're just going about our business, we see each other all the time," Rieger says. "We're always working on other things, projects that bring us into contact. We all do a lot of home recording; for myself, I try to do some writing every day, at least a little bit. Even if we're not doing things as a band, we run into each other constantly.

"Athens is a really small town," he repeats. "It's nice."

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