Vic Chesnutt & Elf Power — “Phil the Fiddler” from the album Dark Developments
Elf Power — “Fried Out” from the album In a Cave
In addition to his prolific catalog of southern-tinged, darkly poetic songs, eccentric Athens songsmith Vic Chesnutt is well-known for his unusual studio and stage collaborations.
In his hometown, he’s nestled into the accidental role of being the artistic bridge between R.E.M. and Widespread Panic — two world-famous acts with whom Chesnutt has recorded and performed. Additionally, Vic’s worked with a number of noteworthy artists, including Lambchop, Giant Sand, Calexico, and the Jayhawks.
Last year, Chesnutt oversaw another collaborative project — this time, with the hometown colleagues of Elf Power, the rough-edged, indie band celebrated by many as a core member of the Elephant 6 collective. The impressive results brought out some of the finest music either act has recorded.
“Vic has a really unique voice, and his lyrics, to me, are what really sets him apart … they’re funny and dark at the same time,” says Elf Power singer/guitarist Andrew Rieger. “He can tell a story really well. He pulls off a lot of things lyrically that are hard for other people to do. I love the way that he collaborates with artists. I’m glad to be a part of this thing this time, and I look forward to hearing about who he collaborates with next. Vic’s in an enviable position because he’s a solo artist that lots of people admire and want to work with.”
The two Athens acts visit Charleston this Friday in support of a joint effort titled Dark Developments. Over the course of 2008, the wiry and wry Chesnutt enlisted the current members of Elf Power, along with guitarist Curtiss Pernice and bassist/guitarist Sam Mixon (two Chesnutt veteran touring sidemen), who joined the sessions under the moniker The Amorphous Strums.
Orange Twin — an indie label run by Elf Power multi-instrumentalist Laura Carter — released the nine-song Dark Developments in October. Chesnutt and the Elves hit the road together this month and will travel the East Coast, Midwest and the South before heading overseas for multiple shows.
Early in 2008, Chesnutt invited current Elf Power bassist Derek Almstead (formerly of Of Montreal) to engineer and produce Dark Developments. Almstead hauled his vintage microphones and tape machines into the top floor studio of Chesnutt’s home, a cool pad in a historic neighborhood just blocks from downtown Athens. The band congregated in the spacious studio whenever they were available.
“Vic said that he purposefully picked songs that he thought would work well with us,” says Rieger. “It was really fun not to have to worry about being the main songwriter. I just came in and laid back and worked on arrangements. I’ve been a huge fan of Vic for so long, so it was really great to get to do that.”
Elf Power actually finished recording the basic tracks for the Vic album — with drummer Josh Lott keeping time — before they completed the sessions for In a Cave. Rieger and his bandmates spent a little time on the basics, and put in extra time afterward, adding subtle overdubs. For a self-made project, the production quality is surprisingly high.
“There wasn’t a lot of preparation and over-thinking of things. He wanted us to give that spontaneous feel,” says Rieger. “That was definitely something different for us. Vic didn’t want us to do that; he wanted us to go on our first impression. It was kind of nerve-racking, but it turned out good.”
Almstead produced Elf Power’s latest album In a Cave (Rykodisc) as well. The 13-song collection presented two distinct “personalities” of the band — from the slower-rolling, trancy side of things to a more guitar-rock style. Ten years ago, the band was best associated with simple, heavy-handed four-chord verses, grand choruses, and a lo-fi aesthetic. Their new music ventures into more expansive and dynamic sonic territory.
The current touring version of Elf Power includes Rieger, Almstead, Carter, drummer Eric Harris (formerly of Athens’ psyche/pop-rock band Olivia Tremor Control), and guitarist/keyboardist Jimmy Hughes. “On stage, we keep it pretty true to the album,” says Rieger. “Some of it may be a little heavy, more revved up, but for most part, it’s pretty close. We all like the weird little things that Vic added in the overdubs, too, but it’s tricky to do some of that live.”
Dark Developments is a fitting album title, as some songs sound typically weird. Opening track “And How” is a pop thumper with a swingin’ rock beat, snare drum triplets, and some dense call-and-response harmonies. The jangly “Little Fucker” is a bit more strange, propeled by Almstead’s low-end/semi-distorted, McCartney bass lines. On the amusingly weird “We Are Mean,” Vic croons, “In the country, we are happy … in the city, we are mean.” The band responds, “We are mean, we are mean, we are mean!”
They sound so animated and merry, it can’t possible be true … but it sums up the witty, ironic nature of this unusual team effort.
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