The underlying ethic behind the lo-fi revolution started in the late '80s by such seminal subterranean bands as the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and later, Pavement, is that crudely economical, more analog-based techniques of recording lay the music bare, creating a pure experience for the ear as sound was meant to be heard, and forcing the artist to rely more on his or her creativity, rather than gloss or a "fix it in the mix" sensibility. This is the badge and battle cry of those who feel that glossy, radio-ready production only serves to tame the feral spirit and soul of the music, and when it works (as is shown by many other members of the Elephant 6 collective) it can produce a captivatingly personal album experience for the listener like no other, but when it goes awry, without the gossamer sheen of that same polish to smooth the sting of rockier terrains, that same listener can be in for one hopelessly excruciating ride. Elf Power's 1995 debut, Vainly Clutching at Phantom Limbs, roughly falls somewhere in between these two destinations. On one hand, Andrew Rieger has a definite melodic talent that gives most of the material here an inherent listenability despite its slovenly intent, and regardless of the reigning juvenile weirdness of the lyrics, several of the better songs manage to make lasting first impressions ("Finally Free," "Circular Malevolence," and the title track being the best of these). Furthermore, there is strange, experimental affection surrounding the songs that borders on the mystically surreal, and if nothing else, is intriguing enough in itself to make the album worthwhile; this is especially true on later versions of the disc that include the five songs consisting of the group's Winterhawk EP. The problem here is that the songs are so poorly recorded (even more so than most lo-fi projects), they aren't really done any justice by an approach of such defiant trashiness, and Rieger's songwriting talents only serve to make the frequent obstructions of sonic disarray and derangement that much more frustrating. One has to wonder what Elf Power could do with the production genius of someone like Robert Schneider (from the better-known Elephant 6 band, the Apples in Stereo) behind them. Fortunately, all this slapdash procedure is easily excusable when one takes into consideration the fact that this is merely the debut release of a band who would go on to see their vision bear much greater fruition with their next album, When the Red King Comes, so in the end, while everything here does sound like a really cheap home recording, it paints a very interesting early portrait.
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AllMusic Review by Matthias Sheaks