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Spotlight on: No Flashlight by Mount Eerie

Cover image/photo of No Flashlight by Mount Eerie 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 clearer
Even though no one has ever asked, 'What does Mount Eerie mean?'....
Unfortunately, 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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