Artificial Countrysides

Elf Power

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Artificial Countrysides Review

by Mark Deming

If it's possible to sound playful and nervous at the same time, Andrew Rieger has mastered that particular skill, and 28 years into Elf Power's existence, he's only refined his talent, melding sweet, slightly bent psychedelic pop with lyrics and vocals that reflect a certain amount of angst about the world at large. There's been plenty to make a person feel angst-ridden since Elf Power brought out Twitching in Time in 2017, and it's somewhat refreshing to report that on 2022's Artificial Countrysides, the things that have Rieger worried don't specifically deal with politics or pandemics. Instead, the songs feel apocalyptic in a way that's less reliant on specifics. Songs like "Undigested Parts," "Filming the Sequel Before All the Actors Die," and "Pouring Hot Water on the Anthills" all take place in a world where things are going very, very wrong, and Rieger doesn't have much in the way of advice on what to do next, beyond the implied suggestion we correct the error of our ways. Despite the dark undercurrents of the songs, the music doesn't try to fight the mood so much as it allows us to hear about a world where, in spite of the chaos outside, there's some simple beauty to be found even as things fall apart. The tunes are indeed superb, slightly off-kilter pop, though "Floods" does bear a curious resemblance to the Ramones' "I Just Want to Have Something to Do," an influence one might not have expected of this group. Recorded partially in the studio and partly at home, Artificial Countrysides captures this edition of Elf Power (with multi-instrumentalist Rieger joined by Davey Wrathgabar on guitar, bass, and keyboards, Peter Alvanos on drums, and additional keyboards from Laura Carter and Neil Golden) in fine form, with full-bodied arrangements boasting abundant tonal color while still leaving just enough space so the music feels roomy. If you're prone to imagining the worst about the fate of the world, you might as well find some way to make it approachable, and that's just what Elf Power have done on Artificial Countrysides, and it more than lives up to the high standards they've established over the years.

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