Wednesday, November 19, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 323): "THE WINTER IS COMING" (2000) Elf Power

Today’s song takes me back to this time of year in 2000, coming to the end of a year that had been more solitary than usual and full of discovery of things old hat by now—like the internet and time to write and such. The discovery of Elf Power, through Kajsa, fit in with other musical interests of the time, like Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand (1994) and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998). What all those things had in common, to my ears, was unabashed admiration of prog-rock style compositions, but done with a DIY eclectisism, not to say amateurism, though some of that certainly seemed part of the proceedings. These were lo-fi recordings that seemed to cry out for some studio time at Abbey Road, y’know?

That said, Elf Power’s LP The Winter is Coming built on the interest afforded by When the Red King Comes (1997) and A Dream of Sound (1999), both of which I heard in K’s copies, being very partial to songs like “The Arrow Flies Close” on the first and “O What a Beautiful Dream” on the second, and was the album I had to have. And it still pleases me as a latter day candidate for those “Miscellany” tapes I’m fond of recalling, and was very fond of making. I think I wanted to believe in a never-neverland of musical indulgence, let’s call it Athens, GA, or the Elephant Six Collective and let ourselves be seduced by its non-commercial claim to music suited to some amorphous subculture I can’t even name. Their albums can tax one, listened to non-stop, and Winter is full of odd effects and drone and distortion that gets the better of them sometimes. On later albums—I’m particularly partial to Creatures (2002)—things are more mid-tempo folk-rock and quite hummable.

I’ve seen Elf Power play thrice—once in a place about the size of a garage called Flywheel in Easthampton, MA (with a great “Embrace the Crimson Tide” and an encore of Bowie’s “Five Years”), once at Union Hall in Brooklyn, and once as openers, last winter, for Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Aeroplane” tour at Brooklyn Academy of Music. The latter show really seemed to demand a Pink Floyd-size PA, but no matter. Elf Power has gone on in its beautiful dream of creating, in a scaled-down version, the kinds of sounds I loved as a teen. I like the songwriting of the group, led by singer/guitarist Andrew Rieger, which at times boasts Bowie overtones and is sometimes tinged with VU strum. But today’s song, the album's title track, puts me in mind of Donovan at his hippy-dippy best.

Donovan hasn’t gotten a post on here and surely he should. Maybe there’s time yet. Truth to tell, I had pretty much forgotten all about him till Kajsa, in her re-discovery of obscure Sixties talents, brought to my attention stuff of his I hadn’t heard. And Donovan is a fair comparison for the likes of Rieger and GBV’s Robert Pollard, in as much as he had down a kind of Beatles meets Dylan vibe, fleshed out with some great session work from heavy hitters, and lots of that “twee” sensibility going through the sea change of psychedelic substances. Such was only available on long-playing discs and radio releases for a brief season, friends, but it had its day and even radio hits.

And Elf Power recalls to me those days. And today’s song recalls to me watching winter come on in the fall of 2000, particularly that part of the year forever dubbed “the pre-Christmas vagaries.” I’m not sure what all was going down at the time except for what we might call a spate of Bartleby-like “I’d rather not” disillusion. And what would you rather? Burrow into the afterlife of one’s past, maybe.

I can’t say I’m on the cusp of anything comparable at the moment, but I’d still like to let today’s song stand for the promise of, rather than dread of, winter. “The winter is coming / And you’ve got no time to waste.” Could be a reminder to get that cord of wood in, or maybe to stock up on canned goods, or maybe get the car winterized, or maybe make a last effort to get out and about while the getting’s good.

No matter, the song doesn’t say much about winter, it’s just that it suits the mood to me, even that bouncy little passage with horns sounding full of a certain party-time insouciance. Though I guess “peeling back the enormous shroud / To release the beast that lurks behind” could be a good figure for tearing aside the façade of halcyon days to let the howling beast of winter storms loose upon us all, God help us. It certainly felt that way a bit yesterday, as if, indeed, “the gales of November came early.” Today is sunny and bright and low temperatured the way I like it. Did I ever tell you about the time . . .

The “Donovan part” is the “Mother nature calls your name” section, which reminds me of the “looking through crystal spectacles” part of “Epistle to Dippy.” Rieger has a trippy imagination, that’s for sure. See the lyrics below to see how he makes “birds” feel analogous to “snowflakes” and sets up an “other world” where those birds might feel at home rather than coming and going in our changeable weather. I’ve quoted the lyrics in full because every page of lyrics I found online has boneheaded mistakes and, typically, shows no respect for verse-making. Rieger has a nice grasp of the lyric, y’know, as the occasion for matched and varied sounds wedded to imagery. His imagery can be “naturalistic” but generally tends toward “the fantastic,” as with beasts, swarms, shrouds, thrones, a specter and a “golden dawn”—Tarot, anyone?

Anyway, at my best, I like to think, I’m not quite one of the people who scurries home oblivious to those birds floating by. Maybe I’d notice them, even if I’m too blasé to be haunted by their shadowy doings. A pause is all it takes to say you saw that, before it was gone.

And maybe for a moment I’d know how it feels to be Just a lonely stranger in the sky.

Trailing out through the golden dawn
Veering into the angry swarm
Carried by the birds into the dark

Swooping down through the blurry clouds
Peeling back the enormous shroud
To release the beast that lurks behind

Mother Nature calls your name
Leads you to an open space
The winter is coming
And you have no time to waste

Later on at the specter’s lair
See the birds melt into the air
No one could protect them from the sun

Blazing on for another world
Setting off through the silent swirl
Think of all the faces they may know

Mother Nature calls your name
Leads you to an open space
The winter is coming
And you have no time to waste

Free at last now, the bird has flown
Looking down from his floating throne
Just a lonely stranger in the sky

Down below, people walk the road
They never pause as they scurry home
They never see the birds are floating by

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