ARTS

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March 11, 2003

Elvrum captures the cold

I find myself unable to do a normal, qualitative analysis of the Microphones' latest LP, Mount Eerie. I can only convey to you what it sounds like in visual metaphors, which (unlike some metaphors) won't be somehow "truer" than the actual thing I'm describing. Basically, I can tell you nothing about this album that will come near (or even close to near) to listening to it. But I will try my damnedest, so bear with me, and here goes.

The closest sensation to listening to Mount Eerie is taking a walk outside right around now, when winter is at its fiercest, in the late afternoon. Listening to Mount Eerie is almost, but not exactly, the same thing as staring at the pavement while you walk, tracing the jagged shadows the hardened snow casts as the late-day sun struggles to pass through the ice. The few dimly lit, translucent shadows, where the sun has fought its way through, are like the best moments in the album. Mount Eerie is the group of icicles that stalactites down from the rotting Plymouth's muffler on my way home. No--it's only the one that has grown to touch the ground.

Phil Elvrum, the man behind the Microphones, is no stranger to cold. He was reared in a small town outside Olympia, Washington, and I feel his home state not only in his curling Washington Rs, but in the gray chill emanating out of his heavy but simple orchestrations. His voice, by contrast, is the aural equivalent of breathing into a wool scarf--one spot of human warmth in a frozen world.

The Microphones' beautiful 2000 album, It Was Hot and We Stayed in the Water, seemed like the end: it is a perfect record, and reaching perfection usually means fast-approaching artistic demise. But Elvrum does not disappoint, and the following year's The Glow Part II, and last year's compilation, Song Islands, were similarly complex, cold/warm ruminations on his favorite matters: water, death, and solitude.

But Mount Eerie is the first record that captures It Was Hot...'s mythic quality. We follow "Phil," as we shall call the protagonist of Mount Eerie, as he bids farewell to his friends while they all float away on ships, as he travels across a valley, reminiscing about a beautiful girl, and finally as he faces death himself on the peak of a mountain. Though The Microphones' other albums often confront issues of loss and mortality, in Mount Eerie, for the first time, Death appears as a character. In a thick voice, he speaks to Phil of his power, with a chorus of women buttressing his rumbling bass. "Do you see what happens/ When I peel away your bark/ And stain your blue sky dark? ... Your breath I take to live/ Your death I ache to give/ So take it in and crumble/ Be smothered in my rumble."

There is one moment on Mount Eerie when I always find my eyelashes beaded with moisture while listening--in track 2, as Phil travels along the valley, remembering a girl he has lost, or has yet to find. The song is the shortest of the five tracks (just under four minutes) and is perhaps the only real "song" on the album. While Mirah (his fellow Olympian and K Records artist) sings ethereally in the background, "I know you're out there," again and again, forming a canvas of loneliness, Phil paints the blue words, "Through your skirt I see/ Your legs gracefully." Using few words and his unique, emotion-drenched soundscapes, he conveys clearly and earnestly the hurt of remembering the minutiae of a far-away love.

If you should choose to own this album, allow me to prescribe your listening procedure. Please be cold while you listen--take it outside, and walk while it plays in your ears, and you will find that the sting on your cheeks and the crunch of ice beneath your feet belong with the songs you hear. Pick up some clean ice and put it to your lips and keep it there until they are numb, and close your eyes and listen, just listen to what cold feels like.