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Zen and the Art of Mountain Climbing

 

The Microphones: Mount Eerie

K, 2003

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: January 27, 2003

By Laurence Station

It's almost too easy to dismiss principal Microphone Phil Elvrum's music as overly simplistic, or to condescendingly peg it as childlike. His 2000 release It Was Hot, We Stayed In the Water sounds like the title of an instructive children's book. 2001's The Glow Pt. 2 serves up the following lyrical shared secret: "I took my shirt off in the yard/ No one saw that the skin on my shoulders was golden." Indeed, Elvrum, with his quavering, sing-speak vocals (like a pre-teen's voice forever on the edge of breaking), brings a wide-eyed fascination and near-giddy hyper-eagerness to his explorations of the nuances and, critically, the hidden spaces between musical notes. This no doubt is a quick turnoff for those who simply have little time for Elvrun's presumably neo-primitive, at times insouciant -- though never precious -- sound.

Big mistake. On deeper listens, Elvrum is all about ideas, wrestling with profound philosophical issues (Why are we here? What happens to us when we die?), but never in an obnoxiously dogmatic manner. Elvrum wants the listener to enjoy the wonder of life with him, to marvel at things that could easily be taken for granted, and perhaps leave behind a few burdens. Profundity doesn't equal verbosity; insight isn't equal to the number of 50-cent words one tosses around (a lesson from which this reviewer could surely benefit). Elvrum may use the Microphones primarily as a musical outlet, but it's also a way for him to document his feelings about life and the beauty (and often sheer terror) of the world around him.

To that end, Mount Eerie is a five-song story cycle about a boy (Elvrum) who is born, greets the sun, ascends a mountain, dies, and then has a massive, post-mortem revelation. There's more to it than that, of course, and it's in the discovery of the various themes and ideas flitting about that the album takes on deeper shading and ultimately reveals itself to be the Microphones' finest work to date. The expressively illustrated liner notes quote 13th century Japanese Zen Buddhist master Dgen's Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma; the notion of rebirth/reincarnation (edging ever closer toward Enlightenment) is prevalent throughout. There's also an unmistakably Sisyphean aspect to the trial Elvrum must endure in his quest to reach the mountaintop. Is it better to be reborn closer to the mountain's apex, or does one learn more about oneself by having to start over again from the bottom? (Just for the record, Elvrum begins his journey at sea level.)

It's easy to look at the album as straight biography, to associate Mount Eerie's bucolic imagery with Elvrum's hometown of Anacortes on Washington State's Fidalgo Island -- the highest point around being Mount Erie. Thematically, Elvrum incorporates elements from his previous two albums: the bellowing tugboat that runs the length of The Glow Pt. 2, as well as that album's concluding heartbeat, open the album's first track, "The Sun," while It Was Hot's "Drums" returns, refortified, picking up seamlessly where the heartbeat drops off. The drums rise and fall dramatically (creation and destruction canceling each other out) before Elvrum chimes in near the eleven-minute mark. A cowbell and trumpet, coupled with a white noise washout of a climax make for a stunning introduction.

"Solar System" offers a peaceful respite, though hinting at the coming darkness ("Let the flash flood begin/ Wash me down the canyon"). "Universe," with its clattering bone rattle percussion, ponders "How many times have I died up here before?" while Elvrum admits to feeling "aimless, alone, and unraveling." That sense of menace takes physical form on "Mt. Eerie," as Death arrives (courtesy of the basso fury of Little Wings' Kyle Field), Elvrum is slain and his body is picked clean by scavenging birds (voiced by Karl Blau) -- followed by a rainstorm that washes everything away. Mount Eerie concludes with a bodiless Elvrum confronting the Universe ("Now that I've disappeared/ I have my sight") and discovering eternity within. Master Dgen would doubtless be pleased.

Mount Eerie loses its footing at points, flagging noticeably after Elvrum encounters Death (just because he's dead doesn't mean that the music has to drift quite so listlessly as well -- why is death in music always so, well, funereal?). And the encounter with Enlightenment could be a little more sonically expansive. But these are minor quibbles. Elvrum (along with his fellow Microphones) has scaled new heights with this latest release, one that will hopefully enable him to keep making his unique brand of music until true enlightenment finally arrives.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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