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Music CD Recommendations
Mount Eerie, 11 Old Songs of Mount Eerie
Ever wonder what Phil Elverum did during his fabled Norway vacation of years past? You probably already knew that he changed the name of his band from "The Microphones" to "Mount Eerie" (Mount Eerie was then the current Microphones album) and altered the spelling of his surname (originally Elvrum) to coincide with the Norwegian town (and from which, one presumes, his family originates).
You also are probably aware that he wrote a lot of songs, many of which have appeared on various albums since, most notably Live in Japan February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003, the transitional last album by "The Microphones" (which contains this album's "Great Ghosts" and "I Love (It) So Much") Eleven Old Songs of Mount Eerie collects some of the Norway tunes for posterity. It is Elverum's way of getting them down in a final state, of finishing with them so he can move on to newer music.
According to the promo sheet, the album is recorded in the style of such seminal albums as Ten New Songs by Leonard Cohen and Arise Therefore by Will Oldham (but not, interestingly enough, Elverum's own Seven New Songs of Mount Eerie, which offers fuller versions of a couple of these songs -- which, of course brings up the question how can a song be both "new" and "old"? I guess it's all relative).
Eleven Old Songs of Mount Eerie presumably contains some of the first songs that were created under the "Mount Eerie" moniker, which makes them over three years old. Given Elverum's prolificity of songwriting (this is his third album in just over three months -- see No Flashlight and Singers), it's no wonder he has lost interest in pursuing these songs further, not even bothering to add any of the usual embellishment that would make them sound like the usual Elverum product. He has merely chosen to sing them accompanied solely (for the most part) by an old Casio keyboard.
I, for one, found this to be a huge disappointment. This bare bones approach is not what I came to enjoy so much about the previous Microphones albums. Elverum's songwriting is stunning as always -- he manages to say a lot in just a few simple, well chosen words -- but it was his innovation in the studio that originally made me a fan of his work (both on his own albums and when producing the work of others -- hear Mirah's "Cold Cold Water" for a peak example).
There is not even the wonderful percussion skill that he has shown since his earliest days on the Anacortes music scene as a founding member of D+; he has instead chosen to use the canned beats from the keyboard, making several of the songs sound as if they were recorded in the same room as a Sega tournament. But don't get me wrong, 11 old songs of Mount Eerie is better than any 40 songs off the radio -- even satellite radio -- plus, there's that nice little two-minute bit of wind at the end of track three, "The Boom."
Yes, I was disappointed by the execution of these songs for the most part, but only because I've been a witness to what Elverum can do when he puts forth his full effort. Under whatever name he decides to record, he is still putting out some of the best music available (even as it becomes increasingly less available to the general public), and I still intend on keeping up with whatever he does.
Throughout his career, Phil Elverum has often gathered friends in the studio during recording sessions to just lay down some extemporaneous tracks with a campfire singalong feel, often just using a single microphone in the center of the room. These gatherings have been the highlight of more than one album. Owners of Song Islands will recognize "I Can't Believe You Actually Died" (this version sounds like a different version, although it could just be an alternate take), and even Jason Anderson's New England (which Elverum produced) features this approach on its centerpiece, "Hold On."
Now Elverum (Microphones / Mount Eerie) has released several of these one-of-a-kind performances on one album called Singers (which is also the name of the "band" -- it's their debut) on his own P.W. Elverum and Sun label. It begins like any other Phil Elverum project, with his own plaintive solo voice. Listening to him singing the first few verses, it's easy to get swept up in his personal emotion so that the choral interruption becomes completely unexpected -- and all the more powerful for it. Unfortunately, the repeated refrain of "Let's Get Out of the Romance" -- even when punctuated by Elverum's lyrical counterpoint -- becomes a hypnotic drone, like a polysyllabic om. A similar effect is achieved on "Do Not Be Afraid" (it's also one of three songs that come in at just over a minute), but it flows instantly into the next track, "Where Is My Tarp?" which is a definite highlight, with the extra voices uses mostly for background color.
Another highlight is the wonderful "Human," which is hypnotic in the best way, eliciting a swaying response that is hard to keep in check (this is important to remember if you're going to listen to this on a crowded train). Also featured is a rendition of the Little Wings Light Green Leaves tune "Uh-Oh, It's Morning Time Again" (here titled "Ut-Oh! It's Mourning Time Again"), which shines a light on one of the flaws in the recording: the production, meaning there isn't much. The sound quality varies from track to track along with the fidelity. I found myself having to turn the volume up or down based on the requirements of each song. Leaving conversations recorded before or after songs, or letting us hear when the record button is pressed, adds to the album's charm, but some of its ultra-DIY aspects took me out of the flow, making it a mixed experience that will likely be trying to new listeners.
Also, there's no real theme to this collection of songs, which can make transitions jarring, but those who stick around will be rewarded with surprises: since Singers spans a five-year period, several of Elverum's K Records cohorts appear on songs, like Mirah, Khaela Maricich of The Blow, Calvin Johnson, and Kyle Field of Little Wings (and I think Jason Anderson plays guitar on one track). Loyal Microphones/Mount Eerie fans are undoubtedly going to want to pick up a copy, but it is likely to strike the best chord with those who enjoyed the eclectic nature of the Microphones rarities collection Song Islands and Mirah and Ginger's escape-to-Carolina venture Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project. Like the Mount Eerie release No Flashlight, this album comes in an LP + CD package.
Mount Eerie, No Flashlight
The darkness represents our fears -- being afraid of the dark is something most of us can identify with, it is essentially a fear of the unknown and of our fears themselves. The long-awaited debut album from Mount Eerie (the latest band manifestation of The Microphones' Phil Elverum), No Flashlight, is about embracing the darkness. Not your own personal darkness -- there's enough crappy music harping on that subject, thank you very much -- but the real darkness, the darkness of night, something we rarely do as a culture, with our nightlights and spotlights and tracklights and flashlights. (I'm going purely on instinct, here, though, because my "inferior promotional copy" of No Flashlight came without the huge explanatory cover. It's just as well, though, as Elverum admits that said explanations may actually be more befuddling.)
This concept is admirable, especially when you consider that the idea seems to have come upon Elverum purely by accident. He says in the first of two songs on No Flashlight called "No Flashlight" that "I can only say 'no flashlight' because, once, I forgot it." But, instead of packing up and going home, he decided to remain and discover its possibilities. The heavy percussion (which makes the album surprisingly potent -- sometimes painful -- through headphones) signifies the oppressive weight of the darkness, or "the pregnancy of night," as he sings throughout the album. But the night offers many things, not the least being the only time when "the universe is shown."
In both his Microphones and Mount Eerie incarnations, Phil Elverum has worked on themed materials, often involving natural aspects (water, the moon, etc.). No Flashlight is simply a continuation of that. You could see it as the story of the night he truly discovered the darkness, the thoughts and memories that ran through his head (alternating between fright and awe), and then his relief (combined with sadness) at the appearance of "the air in the morning." Previously, no doubt, nights had been accompanied by his beloved moon (or, one presumes, a flashlight) and now he can appreciate it on its own (although he is still not totally comfortable with it).
Elverum writes seemingly inscrutable songs, but he wants to be understood. Why else explain all the songs on the packaging ("with references, clippings, and photos" says the promo sheet). This difficulty even begins the album -- it's even the subject of No Flashlight's first song, "I Know No One":
Knowing no one understands these songs, I try to sing them clearerUnfortunately, that's about all that song has to offer. The true beauty of No Flashlight starts with Track 2, "I Hold Nothing." I love the way Elverum's voice sounds over the distortion (reminds me a bit of that Pink Floyd song "One of My Turns"), and when the sweet guitar strumming takes over, it's almost imperceptible, simply continuing the mellow mood as "the world rolls on." Then the piano enters slowly and offers its two cents of simple counterpoint.
Initial listens always tend to bring up surface favorites, based on lyrics that reach home, or music that simply sounds interesting. The latter makes "The Moan" jump out at me, with its wild wolf howls and rumbling guitar (courtesy of Jason Wall). That it references the two prior songs on No Flashlight does not go unnoticed, either. Elverum doesn't have the ideal voice for accompanying a raucous guitar, but that makes this song all the more remarkable, given that it works completely. Also of specific note are a trio of parenthetically-titled songs based on similar rhythmic arrangments: "(2 Lakes)," "(2 Mountains)," and "(2 Moons)." And another favorite, because of the way it sounds, is "The Universe is Shown." Its marching band feel (with trombone punctuation) makes a big noise that sounds great in headphones.
But most of Elverum's music sounds best that way because, even in the face of his multi-instrumentalism, his focus remains percussion, the basis of nearly every Microphones and Mount Eerie song since the beginning. He has been quoted as saying that he only feels truly comfortable at the drumset, so it makes sense that he would build his music from the ground up like that. (Also available, for percussophiles like myself who bought The Drums from Mt. Eerie EP, is its follow-up, The Drums from No Flashlight.)
Elverum has chosen to face his fears of the night (did he dote on the moon so much because she protects him from the night?) and be able to present that musically -- a maturity that rated a change in identity. In fact, the name change from The Microphones to Mount Eerie is only one of a collection of milestones that Elverum has reached in the past few years: in addition to changing his band's name, he has also changed the spelling of his own name (originally Elvrum; inspired by a trip to the Elverum region of Norway, one presumes he got in touch with his heritage), started his own record label (P.W. Elverum and Sun), and gotten married to the former Geneviève Castrée (of WOELV fame), whose angelic voice appears on a couple of tracks. These many changes that signify his recent growth from the larval Phil Elvrum through the pupal stage to the (for lack of a better term) adult Phil Elverum. Although who is to say that this is his final phase? I look forward to further developments from this one-of-a-kind artist.
(And this album is truly a collector's item. In addition to the great music produced by Elverum and Friends, the packaging of No Flashlight is something to really shout about. Included are two formats: the expected CD and a white vinyl LP enclosed by a cover that folds out to five feet by three-and-a-half feet, with lyrics and other explanations included. Get an extra one to line your baby's crib and teach him about Mount Eerie! Just go to the P.W. Elverum and Sun website and pick your package and method of shipment. There are over a dozen combinations available. The album will also be at Mount Eerie shows and better indie record stores. Also, don't forget that Seven New Songs of Mount Eerie is still available as a free download.)
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