Weird things happen around concrete in Athens, Georgia. Last April Michael Stipe caused a stir when he loudly protested the city's installation of speed bumps on his street, calling them "idiotic, selfish and inappropriate." Now if he can only get rid of those superfluous stop signs and speed limits, the citizens of Athens can live freely again.
But Michael Stipe isn't the only gnomelike creature to have concerns with the pavement. Elves seem to leave their marks in the wet concrete of the sidewalks. In the mid-'90s, resident Andrew Rieger stumbled across the phrase Elf Power etched into the ground outside a taco stand. "I was like, wow, that's a cool kind of a name for a band," he says. "Then I walked by the same spot a couple weeks later, and it was no longer there, so our theory was that it was some sort of divine communication from an elf spirit." It was either the positive affirmation of a sprite, or Rieger had returned to the wrong spot. Whatever happened to the impression, he took it and made it his own.
Formed in 1994, Elf Power started out simply as the boyfriend-girlfriend duo of Rieger and Laura Carter. They soon released Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, an EP recorded on a four-track. They could afford to make only 53 copies, but the album managed to create a buzz, especially after the addition of bass player Bryan Helium to their live shows. Then they did what most relatively small-town bands decide to do once they get momentum: They moved to New York. And like most relatively small-town bands that move to New York, they got homesick and moved back home. "It was hard to find like-minded people to play with up there," says Rieger, who had difficulty finding others attuned to his brand of psychedelic folk-rock.
Elf Power's music is far from the urban East Coast experience. It's decidedly Southern: moody, dreamy, dark and tender indie rock without the lethargic trappings. The songs are dripping with a haunted vibe, like sipping lemonade on the porch while creatures rustle around in the kudzu.
When the pair returned to Athens, they got down to business, becoming part of the famed Elephant 6 collective started by successful indie popmeisters Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, and Neutral Milk Hotel. The collective is a sort of shoe-gazers' wet dream, a cohesive scene of college rock and Brian Wilson worship in the form of a record label. The reasons a segment of the underground has hyped the collective probably have more to do with the mythology of Athens than with the music itself, as the town is famous for being the incubator of R.E.M. and the B-52's, among other bands.
As esteemed as the Elephant 6 bands are, the affiliation also can be an albatross. Speaking in the boyish drawl of a thoughtful young Southerner, Reiger explains: "Folks just kind of lump us into the whole thing, which they perceive as happy, sugary pop music . . . There was one review I read that said that we were Beach Boys devotees. I honestly don't see that influence in our music. I'll admit to ripping off the Velvet Underground or Neil Young, T Rex, stuff like that. Those influences are pretty apparent. But the Beatles and Beach Boys are not accurate." If half of the bands in the collective are light and poppy, then the other half are definitely dark and dreamy. Elf Power more naturally deserves comparison with Neutral Milk Hotel, which is weird and heavy, both musically and lyrically.
Elf Power ultimately expanded into a five-piece group and released five critically acclaimed records, the latest of which is Creatures. Its catchy tempos and melodies still retain a certain mystery, and the cleaner production manages to maintain the murkiness necessary to convey the band's shadowy sound. This is another myth surrounding the band: that it prefers the four-track, low-fi approach to recording. "I would rather make an album that sounds like David Bowie than an album that sounds like Sebadoh," says Rieger. "Some of the more trashily recorded things, like Guided By Voices, are amazing. But then every jackass with a four-track put out an album, and it kind of killed it."
To write his songs, Rieger works first on the melodies and adds the words later. Creatures seems to include the album's title in most of the songs, leaving the listener to wonder if the album is a concept record about little furry things, messenger birds, forests and dark waters.
"That's just one of those things I noticed after we recorded it," Rieger says. "It seemed like a thread that was kinda tying it all together." And all the songs seem to have a unifying theme of vague yearning. One of the highlights of the album, "Palace of the Flames," is about summoning the powers that be to bring someone, either a lost love or a new one. When asked about it, Rieger blushes. "That's kind of a love song," he says. "I'm usually not that overt about that stuff. I mean, I guess the song is still fairly vague!"
But Rieger's lyrics are the stuff of fan-site essays and water-cooler deconstruction by indie rockers. The band is a veritable kook magnet.
"In Los Angeles, these young teenagers came up that were obviously tripping on acid," he says. "One of them proceeded to tell me that he listens to Elf Power and stops breathing and goes into this alternate dimension for like six hours at a time, and he's dead and floating around, and he claims to have spoken to me in this dimension."
For all the interest in the band's music some of which verges on the obsessive Rieger and company remain pretty laid-back. They are Southerners, after all. "To me, Elephant 6 has always been a group of friends that kind of play on each other's records and have a similar aesthetic," he says. "That's just the people who live in Athens."
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