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Elf Power | Walking With the Beggar Boys (Wishing Tree Records)

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While Walking With the Beggar Boys may be musically imaginative, it fails to deliver the same ingenuity in its lyricism.

 

There will surely be Elf Power aficionados who pick up this album and understand immediately what is different about it. With six albums released over the span of a decade, the band has presumably established a distinctive, signature sound that has gathered a cult following since the early beginning. Whatever the classic repertoire might have been, it has lost itself on me. Their latest release, Walking With the Beggar Boys, falls on ears that were heretofore virginal in the ways of Elf Power, so I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be hearing here that is radically altered. Yet all of the buzz surrounding this album claims a marked change in style and sound, leading Elf Power on a new trajectory from their well-trodden path.

While Beggar Boys comes across on the whole as a relatively stylized and produced pop album, the most fitting description of the format and sound of it would be, in a word, “eclectic.” While there are a few tracks that maintain consistency with one another, there is overall a great deal of experimenting with genres, beats, and instruments. The album opens and closes with rocking, upbeat pop songs, and there are a couple of others scattered throughout that remain consistent with this sound. But it is the in-between where things begin to get interesting. Just as your ears grow adjusted to the moderate sound of pop within the first song, the second track jolts you from your expectations with the introduction of Southern-inspired rock. And so begins a train of songs that are, musically, all over the map. The down-south country feel of the title track, detailing the band’s encounter with a horde of begging children in Warsaw, gives way to the sleaze/punk rock sound of “Drawing Flies.” The refrain of this one could have fallen from a Strokes record, a far cry from the folk rock of the preceding track. From here, Elf Power takes us to the lilting, waltz-metered pop of “The Stranger,” reminiscent at last of the first track and maintaining a thin membrane of consistency with the album’s overriding feel. But this is only a teaser, strategically placed to tie together an otherwise scattered mix of unrelated songs. “The Stranger” is succeeded by the Go-Go–esque beat of “Hole in My Shoe,” which is in turn followed by perhaps the most drastically different track on the album, one flown from orbit entirely. “The Cracks” is a cerebral, infectious clamor of synthesized beats and intricate measure, a playground for the manufacture of electronica. With spine-tingling synth runs and haunting vocals, this is without a doubt the standout track of the album. It melts into the ’70s new wave sound of “Invisible Men” and the acoustic balladry that graces “Empty Pictures,” proving that Elf Power still has a few surprise tricks to pull from their sleeves before the album ends.

While Walking With the Beggar Boys may be musically imaginative, it fails to deliver the same ingenuity in its lyricism. With a few exceptions, the lyrics are somewhat trite and cornily rhymed (on “Empty Pictures,” about the negative effects of media and advertising: “They can show you pictures of the world that looks so nice/But you can walk out of your door and see with your own eyes”). But it seems a bit unfair to dismiss a band entirely on account of poor lyrics, so if you’re more concerned anyway with the music itself, then this minor detail will fall by the wayside.

With no prior knowledge of Elf Power, I will render myself vulnerable to criticism from those in the know by giving this album my seal of approval. It is hard not to respect a band who keeps things interesting by skyrocketing out of the established box and exploring new territory. Even if the changed sound is a hard sell to old fans, it is nonetheless a testimony to Elf Power that, even after ten years of recording, they still possess the drive to challenge themselves.


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