For most of its career, the Athens, Georgia psych-pop band Elf Power has swaddled itself in conceptual insulation, from J.R.R. Tolkien trappings to dense Dave Fridmann production. Now, no longer trying to bury its true nature and duck the tag of "good-but-not-great hooky guitar-pop band," Elf Power has made its most straightforward albumand, perhaps not coincidentally, cooked up its most winning batch of songs.
Walking With The Beggar Boys draws on the momentum of last year's covers album Nothing's Going To Happen, which showed singer-guitarist Andrew Rieger learning how simple compositions sound best when presented simply. The spiraling synth-and-guitar duet that weaves in and out of the album opener, "Never Believe," is all that breaks up its relentless minimalism. Like the title track and half a dozen other songs on Beggar Boys, "Never Believe" lets Rieger's suddenly fuller, more mature voice carry the melody while his band bangs away, unflagging, at a couple of chords.
Where the 2002 Elf Power album Creatures addressed rampaging metaphorical monsters, Walking With The Beggar Boys seems to be about embracing strangers as friends (sometimes literally, as on the folk-rock lullaby "The Stranger") and realizing the interconnectedness of the world's citizenry. Matched to surging rock anthems like "Hole In My Shoe" and "Don't Let It Be," Rieger's Zen-by-way-of-the-Bible Belt philosophizing makes excellent use of his newfound directness.
Still, the simpler approach is a risk, because Elf Power really is a good-but-not-great hooky guitar-pop band, and groups like that sometimes need a gimmick. But on the uplifting Walking With The Beggar Boys, "good" is plenty good enough.