Some things it must suck to be in the world of indie rock: a publicist for Cat Power after an onstage freak-out; a copy editor for Sufjan Stevens on a particularly long-winded day; an Elephant 6 also-ran up against the increasingly solidified status of Jeff Mangum as an indie-rock legend.
The Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal, Elf Power, even a reunited Olivia Tremor Control can keep putting out quality music, but they’re never going to reach the iconic status of Neutral Milk Hotel. Burn out is always, always going to trump fade away in music land. You just can’t beat Mangum dropping one startling debut record, following it up with an immortal classic, and then disappearing. It’s made him a mythic god to a cult of reverent fans.
So here comes Andrew Rieger and the rest of the Elves with a new album the press kit hails as a “darkly orchestrated masterpiece,” and you really can’t blame the guy for what looks like it’s going to be an attempt to answer the concept album majesty of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Things start out engagingly enough. “Come Lie Down with Me (And Sing My Song)” is a quietly strummed track with a gypsy twinge that recalls Leonard Cohen in his prime. It modulates directly into “An Old Familiar Scene,” which is the first feature of the album to recall Aeroplane, a record that had nearly no breaks between songs. Other similarities: “King of Earth” is a hymn to Jesus, just like Aeroplane‘s “King of Carrot Flowers Pt. II”; a lot of odd instrumentation is put to good use, especially the crazy Klezmer clarinets of “Somewhere Down the River”; and the returning question of a uniting theme.
But it’s hard to figure out what exactly the concept is behind this concept album. Is it about evolution? “Forming” seems to be about primordial life rising up out of the goop, and it’s followed up by “All the World Is Waiting,” which could be setting the scene for human arrival. Or does it have something to do with spiders? “The Spider and the Fly” establishes a melody that returns on the album’s title track and its closer, amped up into full-tilt “Kashmir” Zep rock-out status.
So does all that constitute a concept? Who knows. Sure, Aeroplane‘s uniting theme can seem similarly obtuse, with all the album’s references to fetuses in jars, semen-stained mountaintops, and communist daughters. But a few astute listens is enough to start picking up on the record’s intertwining story lines of sickly sweet, fumbling teenage sexuality and an obsession with Anne Frank. Nothing as evolved floats up out of Back to the Web.