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The Microphones - Mount Eerie

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Artist: The Microphones

Album: Mount Eerie

Label: K

Review date: Feb. 13, 2003

Still Glowing

When Phil Elvrum brought the second proper Microphones full-length, The Glow, Pt. 2, into the world in 2001, the K Records aesthetic and its encompassing Northwest indie pop microcosm experienced a miniature renaissance in both critical and fan circles. Fanzines and their glossier mainstream counterparts alike lauded the release for its wide-eyed esoterica and fragile to all-knobs-on-ten dynamic which was pegged as everything from “jangle pop” to “psychedelia” to “anti-folk”, but was almost unilaterally agreed upon as Something Very Good.

On a smaller scale, a number of the fans won over by the record, many of whom had not shared the virtue of cutting their teeth on Black Candy and to whom D+ represented only the grade they pulled in 11th grade English, were delving further into the world of Elvrum’s motley host of collaborators, becoming attuned to the smile-and-wink post-jam mountain man mystique of Karl Blau and Little Wings, and adding words like “Anacortes” to their new vernacular. While Elvrum continued to play living rooms throughout Washington and Idaho, his excursions eastward packed rooms, and his production work on Mirah’s Advisory Committee served to elevate her to comparable status. The Glow, Pt. 2 was heralded as a timeless record for the ages, Elvrum’s cult-like status became that of a mother-approved Bob Pollard, and from his porch with his two cats, Calvin Johnson smiled.

OK, so things didn’t happen quite like that.

Following national tours in support of The Glow, Pt. 2 which generally involved at least one of the following: puppets, playing behind a large opaque barrier, and/or Rabindranath Tagore plays, Phil Elvrum went home and completed work on the shadowy Mount Eerie, with the only insight being its namesake; “Mount Erie” is a mountain located on Fidalgo Island where Elvrum grew up. The Microphones struck out eastward again, playing spotty shows across the United States and then Europe, where Elvrum settled down in remote Norway – Norway! – for a period of time he indicated to be anywhere from “six months” to “indefinite”.

The man that is the Microphones still resides in Norway, although he currently plans to seek passage back in order to tour Canada with Will Oldham in early summer. Mount Eerie, in the meantime, has been thrust upon us and some early expectations for the album have been confirmed – namely, that it is a concept album, there are five tracks, and pretty much every one of Elvrum’s usual suspects is on it.

Mount Eerie’s storyline is an easy one to pick after only a couple listens, and is concise enough to not warrant much analysis. As indicated by the track titles – “the Sun”, “Solar System”, “Universe”, “Mt. Eerie”, and “Universe” (yes, again) – the album follows in Elvrum’s exploration of the elements through his records. Previous albums have covered the bases of wind, water, and fire, and here “space” fits well as his new subject, allowing greater freedom for narrative introspection.

The track divisions on this record, like on any good concept album, are largely superficial and serve only to partition between the Elvrum’s different musical and thematic movements. The other performers here are more a cast than collaborators, each acting out distinct roles or forming part of the narrative choir. Elvrum seems to have allowed his charges interpretive freedom toward their roles before knitting it together as a distinct unit. Often, the emerging individualism of the actors forms the high point of Mount Eerie’s genius, as is the case with Kyle Field’s deadpan spoken word – well, hell, we may as well say it, rapping – over aggressive drum sampling in his role as Death. (Equally notable is what has to be a Big Lebowski reference as his chorus, but you’ll have to pick that out yourself.) It is precisely these elements also that may prove the most abrasive to stalwart fans of The Glow, Pt. 2.

It seems that every element previously employed by the Microphones is recycled here in masterpiece capacity. The tape hiss is a really, really good tape hiss, or in some cases is replaced by thick radio static (the sound of the universe?). The loud square wave amp-so-high-it’s-cutting-out parts are compressed into walls of melody, and the horn arrangements range from disturbing drones to symphonic bliss. The 17-minute opening track features a Brazilian-style march with staggering percussion before leading into the hesitant, subtly-picked guitar of the narrative.

While it would be incredibly amiss to describe Mount Eerie as “Microphones for grownups” (as has already been done), it is without a doubt a polarizing piece of work that will (has?) served to alienate some of the fans won over by The Glow, Pt. 2. At the same time, it may present more of an instant likeability to some who were not as appreciative of Elvrum’s “conventional” songs.

Mount Eerie should not be taken on a basis of “getting it” or “not getting it”, but rather as a highly realized piece of work from a still emerging musical arranger, and hopefully an indicator of future output on a similar plane.

By Bennett Yankey

Other Reviews of The Microphones

Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003

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View all articles by Bennett Yankey

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