REVIEW: The Microphones: Mt. Eerie
The Microphones: Mt. Eerie [K, 2003] (mp3s)
Three words? strikes you dumb
Sometimes you hear a record so extraordinary that it crashes through your preconceptions like Godzilla in Tokyo, hurling fire-trucks through the walls, shooting lasers through its eyes, sending you running to friends and family - dazzled, moved, images burned into your brain. Sometimes you hear a record that makes you commit to when you said, on New Year's Day, that you would sooner be blind than deaf.
Mt. Eerie is not the most poignant record of the past century - or even of the past five years - but it is an album that makes me long to tell stories, and have them told to me. It makes me long to make Art, and experience it myself. It is big, and brave: noisy, quiet, whole.
But you're not going to believe me.
This is The Microphones, after all. As much as the K Records wunderkinder are acclaimed, there is no escaping the meandering of their previous work: moments of brilliance interrupted with indulgence, hiss, and pure weirdness. Bandleader Phil Elvrum pioneered a brand of post-folk production that swirls Elephant 6 with Wall of Sound - echoing acoustic guitars, fuzzed out pianos, roaring percussion, levels upon levels of noise - but he made records too schizophrenic to be affected by. With Mt. Eerie he piles all of this on - including guest appearances by Mirah, Calvin Johnson, members of Yume Bitsu, Little Wings, The Blow - and then splits the disc's forty minutes into a mere five tracks.
What's more, this is a concept album - with a vague and precocious story-line writ into the liner notes. The seventeen-minute opener, "The Sun", is the song "[i]n which the story begins, where you are born and run away from death up the mountain in fear and are watched by a ball of fire". There's even a little map to help you along. If at this point you're feeling assailed by too much backstory, you're not alone.
Eight minutes in to Mt. Eerie, listening for the first time, I almost turned it off. Was this collage of drums and wind going anywhere? Was the heartbeat going to coalesce into a song? Or at least a meaningful piece of music? Was this part the "you are born", the "run away from death" or the "watched by a ball of fire"?
I mean, give me a break.
But something stayed my hand, let the album play, and soon - not immediately, but soon - I got it. Forget the backstory, forget the concept, forget the wide-eyed indie-chic musicians and their precociousness. Just listen.
It was startling to find that those twelve minutes of percussion, of crescendo and decrescendo, had brought me somewhere. That when the cymbals finally struck and Elvrum's voice rose up from the ground, I stood at his side, staring out over mountain and forest, sky and shore. The last third of "The Sun" is a marvellous piece of music, simple words and irregular guitar notes, the caress of voices... and the vivid images of a waving handkerchief, of "a black ship / rising under red sail". The shadow of death, the feeling of power and vastness; the universe that circles overhead. But I would not have seen it - would not have felt it - without that introduction, clarity slowly emerging from the rumble of timpani and bass drum.
At the close of "The Sun", Mt. Eerie had me. I had committed to its tale, I was being taken along, the lyrics danced before my eyes. I still had my wits about me - I could get bored in the second half of the title track, feel let down by the succinctness of the record's ending - but as I listened to "Solar System", the album's second cut, I felt my heart swelling with every strum of Elvrum's classical guitar, with the whole thing's quiet beauty.
Mt. Eerie is easy to doubt. With the skeptic's hat on, any excerpt sets a new bar for 'the crap someone will pay you to record'. Set aside your cynicism, however, and what The Microphones have produced is lovely and vivid. Though it lacks the emotional effect of rawer works, its intensity dampened by complexity, it is a stunning musical journey - and with your eyes closed, the volume raised, its rewards prove almost transcendent.