Aside from the release of Beulah’s 2003 album, Yoko, there hasn’t been a hell of a lot going on in the land of the Elephant 6 Recording Company collective. Bands have either broken up, started new bands or are missing in action. Since Beulah’s much-underrated release, the group joined the casualty list in mid-2004, leaving a giant hole in the Elephant 6 roster. It doesn’t help that the glory days of Jeff Mangum and his many minions have been on a steep decline as of late, but that hasn’t stopped Elf Power from releasing one of the strongest and much-needed efforts from the Elephant 6 assemblage in some time.
For the band’s sixth release, Walking With the Beggar Boys, the Athens, Georgia-based quintet has dropped a few of its bells and whistles in favor of a quirky, simplistic pop-rock direction that would be considered a safe move by most. Previous efforts, including 1999’s A Dream In Sound and 2000’s The Winter Is Coming, thrived on building songs through studio atmospherics, but Walking With the Beggar Boys is as straight ahead as it gets. It’s clear they’ve been busy listening to early albums by state mates R.E.M. rather than Mercury Rev, making it a perfect pop record for a society that seems ill at ease with ambitious indie-rock marathons.
With full creative control, it would be too easy for Elf Power to forge ahead by making another grand statement full of wistful psych-pop gems, but by taking a step back they reveal their true pop genius. Songs like “Never Believe” and “Drawing Flies” are filled with so many hooky Rentals-guided keyboard skronks that it might seem corny on the first round, but after a few listens they retain a sort of freshness that previous material lacked. The title track contains a cute call-and-answer section, which urban-folk hipster Vic Chestnut lends vocals on. “Don’t Let It Be” is somewhat trashy and about as punk as this band will ever get, and “Big Thing” preserves the band’s indie-rock cred without employing the intricacies of previous work.
In the band’s simplest form, Elf Power manages to keep things fun around every corner. Whether that is achieved by including nine guest musicians playing various instruments on different songs or through singer/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Reiger’s whimsical outlook on life, there’s never a dull moment — sonically or energetically — throughout the album’s duration. Elf Power might have completely abandoned what made them impressionable on their audience in the first place (by making such an alienating album), but they’ve managed to avoid career suicide with Walking With the Beggar Boys. This album might be the much-needed glue for keeping that incestuous Elephant 6 Company together. And if not, at least it will teach bands that it’s often not a bad idea to record your Rubber Soul after your Sgt. Pepper.