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Love it, hate it, whatever 

Long before iPods populated studded belts of irony and Kazaa sucked the life out of the music business, songs glowed at an almost inaccessible distance, just beyond the visible horizon. They weren't at your fingertips, you just kind of knew they were there, and you chased them with your hair, your clothes and your heart. Morrissey and Marr fighting meant an even better Smiths record, and Robert Smith shearing his hair made you cry.

Elefant understands this era, if only by default. Knee-deep in the recent skinny-tied, white-belted nostalgia trip of New York's lower beat side, they still manage to defy hit-parade categorization on their surprisingly epic debut, "Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid." Every song seems to cry a little, then throw its head back in some grand Bowie-esque anthemic victory. In effect, it pierces its genre and goes right down to the sources of the rehash.

On the phone from New York, Diego Garcia sounds like the stream of consciousness he's currently soundtracking as frontman for the band (which also includes Mod on guitar and keyboard, James Jeffrey Berrall on bass and Kevin McAdams on drums) -- somewhere deep in a hangover, but deep in the heart.

"As a songwriter, I take a lot of pride," he says, with a cough and a sniffle. "It's my craft. Live, I've gotten kind of this reputation, whatever. But, really, I'm just a songwriter."

No kidding. With a voice sandwiched somewhere between Ian Curtis and the Moz himself, Garcia delivers a variety show of influence and inspiration that easily transcends both its roots and its peer group. Call it sincerity, maybe. Or just honest good music. Call it whatever you want. Garcia doesn't care. Talk is cheap.

"The beauty of making music is that ... you know what, you can talk about writers, or styles or trends, but as long as I get to write songs, I'll be happy until I die," he says of the comparisons "Sunlight" has received. "On the first record, you can't really tell people what to say. They're gonna say what they need to say. People can love it or hate it, whatever."

But considering that Garcia is just in his mid-20s, it might be hard to believe that he's even heard of the foppish icons to which he's so often compared. Except, well, he grew up in Tampa.

"You know what it's like. You grow up in Florida, music is your escape. It's everything.

"You had a totally older kid picking you up from school who was totally into music, listening to The Pixies, The Cure -- it made my eyes pop wide open," he recalls. "The Violent Femmes don't get any respect anymore, but they're awesome. Then when you're 15, you buy the Velvet Underground box set. At that age, you're forming all your thoughts on life, and then you can't help but get totally mesmerized. Then you go through your phases; you go through your Talking Heads, your Beatles ... ."

Even Duran Duran.

"I'm hearing that name a lot around us," he says, then hints again at that reputation. "I got fucked up at their afterparty last week. Simon LeBon was standing right there. It was funny. Incredible music, though."

It's not all karaoke soul, though. A certain complexity exists in both melody and wordplay throughout "Sunlight." The group's first single (and MTV2-tipped video), "Now That I Miss Her," wraps itself in a circle of regret that never really resolves itself, instead opting for an open-ended walkaway at the end.

"There is no end to it," says Garcia. "It leads the listener into a continuation. Everything has a purpose here. I think you have to learn the rules before you can break them. `But` I believe it should be natural."

Being natural is precisely Elefant's strength, and it's displayed well on "Sunlight." Humility in check, they're in it for the proverbial long haul. After all, the "hip" factor only goes so far. Do they want to sell a million records?

"Well, yeah," laughs Garcia, sounding hardly paranoid at all.

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