Athens band Elf Power strikes a balance between scruffy rock and studio polish

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The Athens, Ga., band Elf Power got their start in the 1990s as part of a loose musical collective called Elephant 6. The musicians in Elephant 6 were essentially united by an urge to push the boundaries of the nascent genre known as indie-rock, and a complete lack of the resources necessary to do so. So the bands that eventually grew out of the collective, like The Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Of Montreal, were initially forced to record their immensely melodic, structurally ambitious, and critically beloved music in the cheapest possible surroundings, which often meant in their homes.

So what these bands ended up with was great, ’60s-influenced garage-and-psychedelic rock that sounded like it was recorded under a layer of tape hiss and lo-fidelity sludge, because that is how it was recorded. It was called “lo-fi.”

Fast-forward through over 20 years to Elf Power’s latest album, “Twitching in Time,” and it’s clear that things have changed significantly. The band, anchored since the beginning by singer, songwriter, and guitarist Andrew Rieger and keyboardist Laura Carter, is still bursting with melodic tunes and inventive arrangements.

The eerie vocal harmonies and foreboding acoustic guitar-and-piano duet of “Halloween Out Walking” create a foreboding sense of menace; the drop-dead beautiful piano riff of “Watery Shreds” is suddenly broken in two by a serrated, distorted guitar riff that completely changes the song’s trajectory, only to be followed by a lovely, loping mid-tempo country-rocker called “The Cat Trapped in the Well” that recalls late-period Wilco.

And none of it, not a note, sounds “lo-fi.” It’s not a crystalline-clear state-of-the-art studio production, by any means, and there are certainly patches of rough sound, but they’re deliberate and designed to add to a song’s texture rather than being the result of a low recording budget. And the fact is that this isn’t an unusual sound for Elf Power. They’ve been making albums like this for a while now.

So why is it that even a cursory search of articles about the band still use the term “lo-fi” incessantly? Does that term even still apply?

“I don’t think so,” Rieger says. “The first two albums from the ’90s could be considered lo-fi because we were recording on 4-track and 8-track cassette tape machines. And that’s because we liked the sound, yes, but also because it was the only thing available to us. But I don’t think that’s what we are anymore. We’re neither lo-fi nor slick and polished; we’re somewhere in between, and I think that’s a nice place to be. I think we’re firmly in the middle somewhere.”

In fact, Rieger says he’s not sure that any specific aesthetic description, whether it’s “indie-rock’ or “lo-fi,” or anything else, applies to what Elf Power does now.

“I think journalists kind of latch on to an easy descriptor and kind of regurgitate what someone else has written,” he says. “And I get that, but I feel like we don’t neatly fall into one category. There’s elements of rock, psychedelic, folk, and punk; all those things melded into one in our music.”

Despite the continued misclassification of Elf Power, who will play a brief in-store set at Horizon Records in Greenville followed by a full show at The Spinning Jenny in Greer on Friday, Rieger says he’s not as upset by it as he used to be.

“I’m glad when anyone cares about our music at all,” he says. “You kind of just have to move forward and do what you do. I think over time I’ve gotten numb to it because you can’t control what people say about it. It used to bug me when I was younger, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

Elf Power

Horizon Records, 2 W. Stone Ave., Greenville; The Spinning Jenny, 107 Cannon St., Greer
Friday, July 14; 4:30 p.m. (Horizon), 8 p.m. (Spinning Jenny)
FREE (Horizon); $11, $14 (Spinning Jenny)
864-235-7922, horizonrecords.net; 864-469-6416, thespinningjennygreer.com

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