splendid > reviews > 2/17/2003
The Microphones
The Microphones
Mount Eerie

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Universe"

Buy me now
Let me first save you some trouble: if you were expecting Phil Elvrum to follow up the immediate, lo-fi savant pleasures of 2000's The Glow Pt. II with some sort of breakthrough, crossover, music industry-salvaging Odelay or Siamese Dream, leave Mount Eerie in the bin. It is a more intimate and more cohesive work than anything else he has done, but it is decidedly difficult, tossing aside more ingratiating effects in favor of a haunting, ethereal mood and a single, thematic narrative.

"The Sun" is an ode to the "ball of fire" as spectator and regulator of everything that occurs, a paranoiac's final concession -- or plea -- to an all-seeing, all-knowing...something. After three minutes of near silence -- a distant, familiar tugboat horn and collected ambient noise can be heard at high volumes or through a decent set of headphones -- we're presented with what seems to be a sonic approximation of a sunrise. The silence is eventually disrupted by a freight train of insistent, primal drums, oncoming horns, piano, found sounds and other percussion. When Elvrum's voice abruptly breaks the cacophony around the 11 minute mark, it is hesitant and vulnerable -- in command but wary. "Solar System" could make you think Elvrum's been spending a lot of time under a fig tree, beginning with the decidedly Buddhist "I know I am lacking / I want what I see" -- it is a soft, compliant song. "Universe" is the album's fulcrum; the sun sets and our protagonist meets his antagonist. "Mt. Eerie" conjures death as traumatic change and sacred passage. The second "Universe" sees our hero emerge triumphant -- enlightened and renewed. Throughout, Eerie's narrator witnesses the collision of the natural and the supernatural; he is awed and wilted, determined and justified by everything he experiences.

Mount Eerie is a profoundly visual recording, conjuring psychedelia from the most basic of instruments while lyrically commanding us to view the details of the mystical scenes it creates. As in The Glow Pt. II, size is a primary theme and emotionally relative; small events sometimes seem as large as the universe and vice versa, depending upon our narrator's state of mind and/or body. Elvrum has also stayed with the prototypical Microphones sound -- a lo-tech approach to music-making that prefers a welcome organic resonance to professionally-accepted production qualities.

Whether consciously designed as such or not, Mount Eerie virtually requires headphones; the rewards are simply too great not to use them. First, the album is akin to a meditation and begs for solitary attention. Second, so much subtle detail is revealed that the recording becomes a vast trove of entrancing musical information -- something to be lovingly and patiently excavated; again, a solitary and (occasionally) melancholy occupation. At the very least, one should be prone and listening at high volumes.

Elvrum took a chance on Mount Eerie, and for that we might be grateful. In an era in which critics wield the word pretension like a week-old tuna in a tea room, Elvrum swallowed ambition for breakfast and applied modern composition to ancient themes. Think of him as a contemporary Thor Heyerdahl -- a relative crank who can convince you of the relevance of his perspective through the sheer force of his will, navigating unconventional and precarious sensibilities through the unforgiving waters of pop culture. So whether he's one of the finest actors out there, presenting us with a unique Elvrum-ology that seems more optimistic and real than our own pathetic lives, or he's indeed as self-aware and focused as he seems, in the end it doesn't really matter. Elvrum provides a real and valid escape for any listener who chooses to engage. And that's a rare thing indeed.



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