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April 7, 2008

The Microphones - Little Bird Flies Into a Big Black Cloud

Well, now, I do a lot of badmouthing of sensitive singer-songwriter types, partly because they are inexplicably popular right now, and partly because by and large they are mediocre musicians and rather whiny, self-centered egoists. Yes, there is a certain undeniable charm to Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine, and those folk. Yes, there are certain songwriters who are good enough writers and restless enough spirits to never become a walking cliché (Bob Dylan until 1975, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos). But by and large, it's mostly precocious pop music disguised in a slightly more literate, reflective shell.

But I am not a one-sided coin, and there are a few singer-songwriters and indie musicians who, despite being sloppy musicians and quavering singers, I really love. Phil Elvrum, AKA The Microphones, AKA Mount Eerie is one of those restless spirits who never lets questions of pitch and tempo get in the way of his music, and never lets music get in the way of his divinely inspired but remarkably down-to-earth lyrics. Like e.e.cummings, his humility and lo-fi aesthetic allow Phil to craft little gems of natural mysticism without ever getting pretentious.

His music is filled with the dissonant chords, heaping waves of sound, and odd phrasing that you'd associate with the avant-garde, and yet is very accessible, nay, universal, in its persistent glowing wonder. Like medieval devotional music as conceived by a wandering nomad of the post-consumer desert, filtered through the lens of a very gentle child of the punk age. This album in particular is like a cross between a church service delivered by William Blake and a children's story as conceived by Cecil Taylor. Or vice-versa. Or something.

With a highly idiosyncratic set of personal recurring symbols to populate his songs, many of which become characters in their own right (fog, the moon, the sun, buoys, trees, blood, ships, the mountain), he is guaranteed not to tread the cliché-ed territory of that most overtrodden of symbols, the rose. He is to this date, the only artist in any medium who has communicated the way I feel when I'm in love: totally excited by the magic of it, totally devoid of conventional romance, and with an underlying current of profound sadness. Phil Elvrum is one of the few people I have met who is unafraid to show how afraid he is, when he is afraid that is. He is, above all else, honest, and his integrity is so naked and compelling that I can't help but let fall my own desperately concocted costumes of chic, my machinations of machismo. It is his vulnerability, coupled with vision, idiosyncrasy and persistence, which make me finally lay down my mountain, bare my fragile hardened heart heart, let flow my precious blood, and say "enter."

Cause why shouldn't I live as God in a glowing canyon?
My life could be a fruit bowl with my hand in.
Stuck with arrows, tarred and feathered,
In a tigers jaw, loving living raw,
I get my truce through open stares and steady open palms.

The Microphones - Little Bird Flies Into a Big Black Cloud
Year: 2002
Label: St. Ives
bloody songs and sunny beams.
mp3 256kbps | w/o cover | 70mb

All the tracks are untitled, though you can find the lyrics and some of the song names at the Mount Eerie Preservation Society. Or, if you simply must have names for all your songs, this tracklist has been suggested, though plenty of the titles are just the most notable verse from the song.
This album was released in a vinyl edition of 400 copies, each with a different hand-painted cover. They were well-gone by the time I heard it, so don't expect to find one. But you can get several of his albums from P.W. Elverum and Sun (including a free downloadable album of another OOP vinyl, Seven New Songs of Mt. Eerie)!.
K. Records hosts a number of similar musicians and has several Microphones albums as well, with a deluxe edition of The Glow, Pt.2 just released, as I write this, right now.

And here's a good review by Tiny Mix-Tapes:
In a world dependent on synthetic pills and dot-coms, it's nice to know Phil Elvrum (aka The Microphones) is out there. He is like a breath of fresh air in the middle of Boston Chinatown, a pitchfork hidden in an array of electronic tuners. He faultlessly transforms the basic rock elements into extensions of his creative impulses. With an impulse here and an impulse there, the creative juices ebb & flow as often as he sings about the moon, the fog, the wind, the water, and the mountain tops-- which is a lot.

On Little Bird Flies into a Big Black Cloud (the sonic version of a book he wrote last year of the same title) never have these impulses been so lucid. Throughout its ethereal compositions, you'll hear new songs, old songs, and pretty much everything in between. Cram previously released albums like Song Islands, The Glow pt. 2, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, and Don't Wake Me Up into a pencil sharpener, sprinkle the shavings on a nearby lake, and you're getting closer to being a complete idiot that just ruined some great albums. But don't fret, with this record by your side, you'll never want or have reason to leave your house again, if only to repurchase the albums you ruined.

The beauty of the record lies in its simplicity. Recorded with a Neumann U67 microphone (set on cardioid) and a Sony Cassette Recorder, Little Bird reflects Elvrum at his most sincere, and perhaps, his most vulnerable. It's incredibly intimate; you can't help but feel as if you are staring over the shoulder of a man writing the rough draft of a magnificent novel. Every piano chord, every organ hit is like Elvrum himself poking you in the stomach with his fingers. By the end of the record, you'll feel as if his whole hand is stuck inside the gooey goodness of your voluptuous belly.

Relinquishing the acoustic guitar and stereo experimentalism for strictly piano and organ, Elvrum bequeaths a relentless batch of songs that transcend simple pop conventions. He recorded 40min of music with 40min of time; there's no layered tracks, no patches, no re-recorded parts. Replete with wavering time rhythms and fluctuating notes, the record has a relaxed, apathetic disposition. It makes you feel comfortable and invites you to listen to its entire natural splendor. Despite the "low" fidelity, these songs are far from mere demos or blueprints or live versions; they are the sound of a process, a performance; the sound of a song in its most naked state.

Generalizing the two sides of the record, the first is more "song" based, as most of the tracks have a distinct beginning and end. Traces of past melodies from previous albums ("I Want Wind to Blow," "The Glow pt. 2," "I'll Not Contain You") haunt throughout, as Elvrum alternates between organ and piano. The tracks on side two prove harder to discern from one another. With the exception of the first two tracks (which are fucking amazing, mind you), the rest are built around a somber chord progression. One moment he'll be singing above slow organ notes ("There's No Invincible Disguise that Lasts All Day"), the next he'll be singing a capalla ("Phil Elvrum's Will"). Though, despite the familiar melodies, all 18 tracks are simply titled by its track number enclosed in brackets.

If anything, Little Bird is essentially a stripped-down Microphones album. And if you are familiar with the Microphones, then you know you don't have to strip down much to get to its core. As the trend with many great albums of late, Little Bird is limited to only 400, all of them on vinyl, each of them hand-painted and letter pressed. Every cover will be essentially different, which is refreshing considering that nearly every other album cover is pressed on a mass scale. (Mine features two floating heads on the back of a Simon Joyner EP turned inside-out.) Once the 400 are gone, they are not coming back. So, if you act quickly and do a little sifting on the web, you too can have one of the most genuine albums released this millennium.


Anonymous said...

I like Kristen Hersh for her lyrics, and willingness to make the records she wanted to make, rather those whhe might be expected to make.

The Irate Pirate said...

funny you should mention. i was listening to kristin hersh - a loon (haunting strings version) just yesterday.

Trailer Star said...

sloppy musicians and quavering singers

holy smoke robin it;s a movement ;)


check out my ramblings at

I think i have what it takes to slop n quaver:-)
great blog BTW

if u like more at