Roundup: Elf Power, W.H. Walker, Campfire OK

Anthony Mark Happel

I’ve included several of the best of what’s been piling up around me. A couple of these are holdovers from 2010, but please don’t hold that against me. It was a crazy busy December. Hope there’s something of interest to someone here. As always, thanks for reading.

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Elf Power, S/T (Orange Twin)

Athens, GA’s Elf Power has unobtrusively become one of the best bands in America. Founded by Andrew Rieger and Laura Carter in the early 90s and appearing with their debut in ’95, they’re considered part of the “second wave” in the Elephant 6 Records camp, along with Apples In Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. (Although, I think NMH would qualify as part of the first wave.) For some reason, it seems that while they maintain a solid following and have achieved a certain cult level of notoriety, they don’t carry the instant, popular name recognition those other bands enjoy. After almost a dozen exceptional albums that’s a real shame.

What they’re doing here, on their tenth LP, is now firmly in the post- E6 world and it’s all their own thing. Their masterfully relaxed approach to neo-psych rock may be one reason why they don’t get mentioned as often as they should; their low-key oeuvre is not flashy, but it’s deep. NOISEZILLA referred to them as “bookish,” and that’s accurate and not a slam, by any means. Their records are loaded with subtle moments of layered audio bliss, and impeccable songs appear to fall right out of them fully formed.

The current line-up of Andrew, Laura, Derek, Eric and Jimmy are skilled in their ability to melt their individual identities into the whole being. Some of it is mildly trippy, with a more exploratory 60s/70s pop quality, and at times that meshes with an understated post-post rock tonal element. It’s subtle, but it’s in there, like on “The Concrete and the Walls.” “The Taking Under” delivers some solid vocal technique, and “Wander Through” is one of their best songs, period. Some of this music is naturally unassuming and restrained going in, but becomes more evocative as each song evolves: “Boots of Lead” and “Little Hand,” for example. There’s also the slightly shambolic (love that word) pop of “Stranger in the Window.” Another top shelf entry in their discography, and a great late-night listen. It should also be noted that this album is dedicated to their friend and fellow traveler, the late, great Vic Chesnutt. My one gripe would be that there are no musical credits, so it’s impossible to know who is playing what, and, unfortunately, there are no liner notes of any kind explaining the origins of any of the songs.

W. H. Walker, Suds (Self-released)

Portland, OR’s W.H. Walker has one foot planted in the present while the other one is tapping out a crazy beat somewhere in some other decade, be it the 50s, 60s or 70s. He blows off a lot of steam with this very excitable seven song offering. This is loosely connected to a lineage that wends its way from bands like Reigning Sound back to The Jam, circa late 70s, and on through to The Who, circa early-mid 60s. At the same time, it has its own weird vibe that carries a new millennium mash-up component to it, or maybe that’s just how we filter things we hear now. It’s a hip rock and soul-flavored, post-mod take on White R&B, but it goes all the way with it, feeling generally quite loose and free in its own skin, not too self-conscious, but maybe just enough, and the songs are as solid as a heady oak. Every track contains Walker’s super enthusiastic vocals, which are almost bursting at the seams on a few songs. In the press kit they use the phrase “boogie pop” and that hits pretty close on “The Untold Death of Grady Jones,” a crafty pop song with a great throbbing hook that digs its way into your skull after one listen. And “Don’t Let Me Go” even plays a little rummy with Ben Folds and Paul Collins, no shit! This guy could be going places very soon, like maybe onto an actual record label.

Bronto Skylift, The White Crow (Self-released)

This Scottish noise-rock duo of guitarist and vocalist Niall Strachan and drummer Iain Stewart (also in The Phantom Band) manages to hit many of the stops on the international noise tour on their 9-song, 26-minute long debut. They blast off with “Burt Bacharachnid,” and they’re a might shaky at first, but they settle in quickly, coming on like gangbusters and doing a good junior league version of Lightning Bolt spazz-rock on “Eagle/Falcon.” They’re a little more stripped-down, or just less dense, and more rickety than LB, but they pull off disjointed noisiness without a problem, and their point is well made. On “Danny Glover isn’t Dead” they take a breath and do more of a Jesus Lizard lurch, with a cool self- parodying vocal, and it works okay. Despite the overall limitations of their sound they vary every song enough to keep you wondering what’s coming next.

<p>Campfire OK, Strange Like We Are (Ana Them)

This is one of the pleasures of January among the stack of CDs that have been lying around awaiting some attention. It’s a fresh sounding psych-folk-pop masterstroke by a Seattle band that is being marketed as part of the Americana scene, I think, but this record shows they are much more than that self-limiting description sometimes implies. Like Wilco, or Phosphorescent, or Centro-Matic, there’s something a little off about the whole thing, as they twist everything they touch into a singular paean, drawing from all kinds of indescribable corners of the mind to come up with something that redefines itself on each song.

And every single track on Strange Like We Are jumps out of the speakers in one random tumble or another, often because of the delirious vocals. The opener, “We Lay In Caves,” builds with a vocal swell and brings home a clattery, one minute long crescendo at the end. “Hard Times” begs the question of Bonnie Prince Billy… and leaves it unanswered. There’s also the slower, weird, sing-along, anthemic stylings of the title track. Some of this might remind people of the musings of the underrated Ed Harcourt. This is a pretty damn good album from start to finish with some fairly complex and well-rendered songs that deserve to be heard. Two snaps up on this one.

That’s it for now. Until next time…

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