P.W. Elverum & Sun

Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

Picture a warm log cabin. A fire is crackling away, and you are sitting in a comfortable leather armchair drinking some exotic kind of tea, all while a winter’s storm rages outside the window. This is the kind of sonic landscape that singer/songwriter Phil Elverum has woven throughout most of his projects, letting the instrumentation do the talking in most cases; warm string cuts punctuated by harsh and raspy lo-fi electric guitars and drums.

However, on his latest release, a deeply moving and personal conceptual album following the death of Elverum’s wife, the instrumentation is far more stripped back, leaving the listener at the mercy of the brutally sad lyrics.

In the spring of 2015, Elverum’s wife, Geneviève, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Not many people survive this kind of cancer, and Geneviève suddenly died three months after her 35th birthday. Death is a subject oft explored, but never in such raw depth as this.

Each track is more painfully heartbreaking than the last, offering a series of vignettes on the vocalist’s grief and sense of loss, as well as the lamentation on having to raise a motherless child.

The lyrics themselves are harsh, avoiding euphemism and getting straight to the point. It’s rare to see music this blunt and straightforward achieve such raw emotion, but I think the fearless way in which Elverum tackles his own feelings make this record something special, and something I won’t forget about.

What to do when you are forced to describe yourself

I’ve taken to jogging the short distance to volunteer at Siren FM‘s 07:00 breakfast show in the mornings because it helps wake me up and give me some energy. It’s definitely not because I’m late, I swear.

Before every show, we decide on a theme for song choices. Today, we’re tasked with choosing a track that describes ourselves. God, this is going to be impossible. How can I possibly choose a song that perfectly sums up and describes something as infinitely complex as a person? Is it even possible to cram an entire person into four or even three minutes’ worth of time?

I pick a blue office chair to swivel in circles while I contemplate who I am as a person. To my horror, I see that a couple of people on our team of six have already chosen their songs and are queuing them up on the playlist. There’s absolutely no way they put an adequate amount of thought into choosing a song; now everyone will get the wrong impression of them. It’s like it doesn’t even matter to these barbarians! I refuse to let that fate happen to me. I’m going to do it right.

Unfortunately, time (the cruel mistress) has other plans for me, and I’m forced to choose something before the show starts. In a moment of sheer panic, I settle on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, because I’m laid-back and well-loved, or some other nonsense like that. It’s not a perfect choice, but one I’m happy for coming up with on such short notice.

Wait.

“Chris, I just realised something,” I say later, while we are taking a break. “What if, when we play Michael Jackson, people will think that I’m a child molester?” I’ve ruined my life with one simple mistake.

Chris assures me that people won’t think that, but how can he be sure? I spend the next hour pondering what my new identity should be while the dreaded moment approaches. Typical, you wake up to do a harmless breakfast show, and end up having to become a fugitive. I’m in the process of learning Russian by the time my song is next in the queue, only to find out that 10 seconds of the song is actually aired, before being cut off by the news. I guess it’s a relief, but now I’m annoyed that my song didn’t even get played.

Recording Music in the Small Upstairs Room of a Theatre.

The moment I finish recording, the drummer lunges to the window to stick his head out. “I can’t believe I’m drenched after one song,” he gasps. The stale smell of sweat is already permeating the room, but we can’t have the windows open during recording because trains like to pass by whenever we decide to start. A lilac curtain has been drawn all around the room in an attempt to reduce echo, and the black scuffed floor is a result of so many instruments being dragged across it over time.

Max, the vocalist, turns to me and tells me to get rid of what we’ve just recorded and start again. A few moments of fumbling with the macbook pass, and I nod back to him. He brushes his blond hair out of his eyes, scratches at an even blonder beard, and stands poised grasping a bright red electric guitar. All is silent for a few seconds, and I start the recording.

It lasts about five seconds.

“Max, I’m sorry mate. I just cant hear you.” The drummer has missed his cue. Now, we have to come up with a solution. For my first day on the job as a sound technician, I’d say it’s pretty normal. Currently, our elegant solution to recording an electric guitar is jamming a microphone right next to the giant amplifier, which thankfully comes on wheels, making the act of turning it towards the drum set easier. Problem rectified, Future Theory begin playing again.

The room becomes awash with their rich, old-school sound. I really like how they’ve made the instrumentation the main focus of the music, including large instrumental sections to really let the music breathe and to make the vocals feel like the icing on the cake.  I’m impressed. I might ask Max later if he would want his band’s music to get a little air-time on my radio show. That might be a good way to buy their respect.

When the song is over, I (very professionally) leave a pregnant pause at the end before stopping just to make sure all the guitars have fallen silent. Now, I pass out massive grey headphones to everyone so that they can listen back. They decide to do another take, so I begin setting up another recording while everyone else takes their place. Max, glancing at me, sees me nod and begins his guitar intro.


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Having the opportunity to work with local bands, record their music for them and get paid for it is really a dream come true for me, and barely even feels like work at all. In fact, I loved every second of it, and I’m notorious for hating everything. It took us an hour to set up all the equipment, but the band waited patiently and politely. At least, that’s what it looked like. They could have been silently dreaming new and exciting insults to hurl my way for being such an amateur. I’m sure they weren’t, but you can never be too careful.

The xx – I See You ★★☆☆☆

I never saw the xx as a project with much of a shelf life. While their self-titled debut was rather good, it didn’t seem like they could really try much else in musical terms.

The xx were formed in London in 2005, and are comprised of vocalists and guitarists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, and production is handled by Jamie “xx” Smith.

While Coexist seemed like a natural albeit flawed progression from their debut, I See You feels slightly forced. The minimalistic, washed out electronic sounds worked in the band’s favour previously, but the more UK garage trappings of especially the front end of this effort seem to be at war with the vocalists. The duo are known to give soft and nuanced performances, and the production on this album really doesn’t complement their voices, especially on the track “Dangerous”, where they are almost drowned out. I was almost offended by the song “On Hold”, which features a shockingly bad Daft Punk style droning chorus, which makes this track really stick out like a sore thumb in the record.

There are more atmospheric and quieter cuts also, the string orchestration working in the band’s favour, making “Performance” one of the highlights on the album, mostly because Jamie xx left most of it alone.

This album completely failed to win me over, but I feel in the minority on this one, as it seems to be quite well received across the board.

Foxygen – Hang ★★★☆☆

Hey, haven’t I heard this before?

I can’t say I’ve ever had more than a passing interest for L.A. based progressive pop outfit Foxygen’s music; the only album that impressed me in their discography was 2011’s Take the Kids Off Broadway, but I couldn’t help but feel some kind of anticipation when vocalist Sam France promised an album with a 40-piece orchestra, not to mention contributions from Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd. They seemed to be taking the same direction that Unknown Mortal Orchestra took with their last album – echoing 60s psychedelia with a quirky twist.

However, on hearing the album, I couldn’t help feeling that the music sounded awfully familiar, and this train of thought ran through my mind more than once while listening to Foxygen’s newest release, because the band has made their sonic influences abundantly clear on Hang, most notably 70’s soul infused pop and classic swing. I liked the utilisation of the orchestral sections, which really bring out a colour and personality to the music, even if the vocals struggle at times to come up to par.

Unfortunately, wearing your influences on your sleeve only works out for Foxygen half the time, and runs the danger of reminding the listener of other songs, like on the track “Follow the Leader”, where I was more focused on trying to figure out what the band was referencing than listening to the music itself.

Despite all this, I can’t help but enjoy this effort just a little bit. Listen to this if you enjoy modern psychedelic pop, or just love orchestras. But let’s just call it an homage instead of recycling old ideas, shall we?