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Wednesday, April 24, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Elf Power: 'Creatures'


After almost a decade on the lo-fi indie scene and numerous personnel shuffles, the Atlanta-Denver axis known as the Elephant 6 Collective has engendered a love-hate reaction from those of us who appreciate what it stands for but not always what it produces. The Olivia Tremor Control releases nearly unlistenable records and yet puts on incredible concerts. Of Montreal epitomizes E6's simplistic approach to the point of childlike pretension, but is still capable of fine, sophisticated songwriting. Apples in Stereo, the most reliable name-brand, sometimes seems more interested in packaging than music.

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Among this constellation of inconsistency, Elf Power has so far proved to be the dimmest star. Their last album, "Winter Is Coming," was willfully, perversely amateurish, a hodgepodge of ambitious styles that the band was clearly incapable of pulling off. I'd like to think that someone like me told them this, and they then took it to heart (isn't that every critic/fan's dream?), because their new album, "Creatures," is as simple and direct as indie pop gets. It's a joy from beginning to end.

Sticking resolutely to strummed electric guitars and elementary but insistent rhythms, leader Andrew Rieger nevertheless manages to explore a wide range of compelling pop modes, from the Velvets-cum-Television instrumental interplay of "Let the Serpent Sleep" to the epic Old English sweep of "Modern Mind" and "Three Seeds" -- the latter complete with haunting sea chantey accordion. Though Rieger still can't sing worth a damn, he has finally realized how such incompetence can work to his advantage, and his bloodless mumble casts soothing late-afternoon shadows over these mostly minor-key songs.

Ostensibly a concept album about the natural world, in particular the creepy-crawly portion of the biosphere that lies beneath your feet, "Creatures" doesn't necessarily hold together as a thematically unified work. What keeps it going is its inviting vagueness, a sense that the songs, none of which exceed three minutes, hold secrets that only repeated listenings will unravel. In the end, the songs don't really reveal anything, but they sound better all the time.



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