Like a fine wine

Can indie rock age well? Sure, the genre’s noodling guitars, laid-back beats and master’s-thesis lyrics often inspire listeners at that perfect age when irony and smugness trump everything else. But what about later on?

You can dance if you want to: Elf Power recently opened for hip-hop phenom Danger Mouse. Hipsters, uncross your arms.

Andrew Rieger, guitarist, vocalist and brains behind Elf Power, seems to think so.

“We have been constantly writing, recording and touring since the mid-1990s,” says Rieger. “We try to do things differently each time to keep ourselves interested and fulfilled with the processes.”

The Athens, Ga., band, which began in 1994, has released a steady stream of albums, singles and EPs—each one boosting the sonic ante as the band refuses to become irrelevant.

The secret, Rieger says, is relying on the strength of the players who collaborate with him on Elf Power’s albums.

“Different collaborators and players on each of the records all add their own flavors and textures to keep things interesting—I get inspired by hearing what my friends do musically,” Rieger says.

Rieger’s friends and their contributions are apparent throughout Elf Power’s latest album, In A Cave (Rykodisc, 2008). Rieger credits the crafting of In A Cave‘s songs to studio experimentation reminiscent of the ‘60s trailblazers his band has often emulated.

“The songs always change during recording,” Rieger says. “Band members are free to try any crazy idea or overdub that occurs to them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the songs often change drastically between the initial rehearsal and the finished recording. The new record is pretty diverse, I think.”

Part of the spirit of diversity and experimentation came in the form of an instrument whose fingerprints are all over In A Cave: the so-called tape organ.

“Eric Harris, our drummer/multi-instrumentalist created the tape organ,” Rieger says. “It’s a series of tape recorders each playing a cassette of a drone note using different sets of instruments (cellos, flutes and trumpets). The cassette recorders are connected to a keyboard that when played, stops and starts the tape players accordingly. The machines are all slightly different as far as the speeds, so it produces a warbly, off-kilter, psychedelic effect that I really love.”

In A Cave does tread some familiar ground with the skewered sounds of the tape organ, but the album also mixes up the band’s psychedelic, ‘60s-infused indie rock sound with the addition of rhythms that might inspire – surprise—dancing.

Yet Rieger says that any resemblance to danceable music and what Elf Power creates is a happy accident.

“We are not consciously trying to create ‘danceable’ music,” he says.

When prodded about the sometimes stodgy makeup of a typical indie-rock crowd, Rieger defends the audiences: “I see people dancing at our shows all the time, as well as shows by other current bands that I go to.”

But discussion of whether or not a roomful of white kids in ill-fitting pants and vintage T-shirts can dance is best left for another day. Right now, Elf Power is busy creating some of the best indie rock out there, almost 15 years since the band was formed.
And a recent show opening for hip-hop superstar Danger Mouse shows that Elf Power’s members can move when needed.

“[The show] was great,” Reiger says. “Our cellist Heather McIntosh tours with Gnarls Barkley as well, and Danger Mouse is an old friend that used to live in Athens, so it was a fun time, and they were fantastic. I guess I don’t view them as hip-hop, they are just a classic pop/rock/soul band with interesting modern production on their records.”

That sounds a lot like Elf Power itself: avoiding labels, creating new sounds out of old and cautiously prompting audiences to shake their booties. It’s a good life for an aging indie rock band, and from the sounds of it, they aren’t interested in going gently into that good night.

[Jason Bugg is a Sylva-based freelance writer.]

who: Elf Power with Still Flyin’
what: Psychedelic indie rock
where: The Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.)
when: Saturday, Aug. 30. 9 p.m. ($8)

 

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