At first, Walking With The Beggar Boys
seems downright austere. Elf Power's taste for frothy pop exuberance and sludgy, Sabbath-inspired grandeur seems to go almost entirely unsatisfied; melodic, even-handed indie-rock is the order of the day here.
But don't worry -- Elf Power are still the Keyser Soze of the much-missed Elephant 6 collective, and there's a lot more going on in Walking With The Beggar Boys than a cursory spin can reveal. That's partly due to the fact that the disc's most accessible tracks are front-loaded. "Never Believe" is quintessential Elf-Power-as-quintessential-indie-rock: the fuzzed-out, pedal-riffic lead guitar line asserts its feel-good melody just so, and frontman Andrew Rieger's vocal performance is pure fan-bait, almost-but-not-quite-flat in all the right places. Basically, if you had to summarize the group's entire output in a single tune, "Never Believe" would fit the bill nicely, and its status as album-opener is tantamount to a "Previously on Elf Power" montage. The similarly unruffled "Walking With the Beggar Boys" touts Vic Chesnutt's guest vocal stint as its cred-enhancing hook, but you may be more intrigued by the way the song borrows bits and pieces of The Guess Who's "Momma's Got a Squeezebox". "Drawing Flies" musters some stadium rock keyboards, but like "Never Believe", it's essentially a distillation of everything that makes Elf Power memorable. That's not a bad thing by any means, but a lot of the group's inventive, endearing weirdness is MIA.
Don't despair. "Hole In My Shoe" gives us a noodly guitar/keyboard combo, and Rieger's buttered-up croon seems spacier, more operatic than on previous tracks -- and there's more to come. "The Cracks"' head-on collision of bargain-basement techno rhythms and drone-heavy psych-rock isn't necessarily a great idea, but it's just the conceptual kick-in-the-pants that Walking With The Beggar Boys needs, clearing the decks for the (relatively) rip-roaring pop epic "Don't Let It Be". And then there are "Evil Eye" and "Invisible Men", whose loopily mystical lyrics remind us that Rieger probably still has a box full of hand-painted D&D miniatures stashed in his bedroom closet. How many other bands could write a song about a nefarious, omnipresent sensory organ and make it sound cool? Okay, the song is really more about the person being watched than the (literal or metaphorical) beastie doing the watching, but doesn't the prospect of an Actual Evil Eye inspire a few Beavis and Butthead-like snickers?
Walking With The Beggar Boys is a mellower effort, but Elf Power have always hidden their rock action under a bushel; there's no reason to assume that they've begun the long, slow fade into middle-aged irrelevance. Walking emphasizes songwriting over gimmickry; even divorced from the studio fireworks, the tunes are engaging, hummable, memorable, and will only grow more so with repeat spins.
It makes sense that the group is pursuing a simpler aesthetic; band member Laura Carter, who runs the Orange Twin label, devotes most of her energy and resources to developing a pedestrian-based sustainable living community outside of Athens, GA. When you buy Walking With The Beggar Boys, some of your money will find its way back to the Orange Twin eco-village -- a far more ethically and aesthetically pleasing proposition than funding the purchase of a nickel bag and a microwave burrito. Under the circumstances, then, a little austerity is forgivable.