Features | Concerts

Mt. Eerie / Love of Everything / Parenthetical Girls / WOELV

By Dom Sinacola | 30 August 2004

Yeah, but the moon won’t take you out to wine and dine, you dumbshit.- Mount Eerie

The conditions were just begging for a Second Coming: at the top of a lonely, hollowed-out warehouse, a gigantic parachute billowed over our heads, draped at lazy angles from the high ceiling. This muffled the noise of kids wearing cheap body fragrances and etiolated their tired faces; the ride to Chicago’s sepia butt-hole, by train or by car, was a long one. The Gallery’s wide row of windows, lining the wall behind the stage, bore witness to a vicious thunderstorm, the lightning leaving a sleepy penumbra along the parachute’s edge. The kids, lulled by alcohol and the expectations of a sedated show, sat on the floor and stretched out underneath the makeshift canopy. Phil Elverum materialized behind the merch table, not so much hocking his new P.W. Elverum & Sun wares as just allowing the patient fans to pick through each handmade bit. There was not so much a din about the venue as there was just a quiet hum, the storm louder than any voice or instrument that night. Not so much a vibrant live adventure, but more a reassurance of the bedridden subtleties of Elverum’s pop. Not so much a this, but more a half-awake that.

And more or less, all the kids were there to see Phil Elverum. The man looked spooked, a smidge short of reality; recently, his name was Phil Elvrum, but now he is reluctant to settle on the presence of the letter “e” in his cognomen; recently, he went by The Microphones, but now he prefers to be known as Mount Eerie, although the bill still carries his old title, as if the past is just too much of a burden to discard. In this legendary fringe status, Elverum has become something of an indie darling. A friend, digging through a cardboard box of merch shirts alongside Phil, was trying to find a youth large. She straightened up quickly and yanked me aside, “I rubbed against his hands a few times. His eyes were so dreamy.”

The show played out much the same way—dreamily, that is—every performer on the verge of being swallowed by the noise of the storm. Opener Love of Everything promised Fog-like twee as he stepped on stage and began to loop percussion and guitar, but his voice stopped the encroaching lullaby dead in its tracks and, like Fog, only worse, his awkward cellar falsetto overstayed its welcome. The pleasantly androgynous Parenthetical Girls followed, affably killing time as their keyboards were set up. “I’m sorta fickle when it comes to weather,” the lead singer, Zac Pennington, told the silent crowd, before launching into “Kelsey Grammer,” a drone-drenched pop tune peppered with light chimes and synths. Instrumentalist Jeremy Cooper handled the quarrelling sounds beautifully, and Zac’s sing-speak warble never became grating. Their cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End” was a moving tribute to the deranged poet just as much as it was a set-closing homage to Jamie Stewart and Brian Eno.

What about Mount Eerie actually playing? After two hours and two openers, Elverum was still wandering around the merch table, and his third opener, WOELV, was just about to tip-toe on stage. She was cute, this Genevieve Castree, the solo mastermind behind WOELV, but that’s not to say that such charm was the extent of her music; with a deft cradling of melodrama in the vein of Bjork or Mirah, WOELV performed meandering space pop about giants and the harrowing standards society hammers on women. During an a capella that coursed through both Flemish and French, her pupils rolled up toward the center of the parachute, and the whites of her eyes became a startling climax to her trance. Although a bit slow (encouraging the crowd to, for the first time, display their restlessness), her performance did have some serious power, and here’s to hoping a future WOELV release will testify to this.

Finally, Phil took the stage. He plugged in his guitar, tuned it, and cleared his throat. The set that followed included no Microphones tunes—a fact I had heard to expect from Elverum—but instead seemed to be culled from the most recent Mount Eerie releases, Seven New Songs of Mount Eerie and Two Songs 12”. Having not heard these, it was rewarding to watch Phil test his new persona on a crowd that, I could guess, had also probably never heard the two EPs.

Donned in hospital pants and a disintegrating tee shirt, Elverum crossed his legs as he shifted chords, telling of birds nestled in black hair, a tree on a lone sand dune, and crows pecking at the ants surrounding two lovers’ feet. From the beginning, he sold himself as a storyteller, using traces of melody to emphasize the musicality of his battle with his body and the world. “I Belong in the World” (“I sing the song title at the beginning. From now on that’s my new thing.”), a schizophrenic dirge, reconciled within its first notes with the tumult of the rain, and Elverum seemed masterfully in control of his environment, ready to pull plot twists and epiphanies from his tousled hair.

But these things never happened. I think it’s safe to say that Elverum established himself as a maverick of lo-fi studio production by challenging his listeners to trust that the epic swirls and heart wrenching pastoral scopes pouring from the Microphones records were, yes, the product of inexpensive equipment already on the verge of obsolescence. For every subtle strum, Phil offered the possibilities of searing drone or crowded choirs as companions, and such dichotomy made The Glow, pt. 2 and Mount Eerie brilliant, bombastic listens. Yet, in the Open End Gallery, Phil did nothing of the sort.

This is not to say that under the Mount Eerie moniker, Elverum proved himself to be of another breed from the Microphones, but in watching him stand alone, cocked to the side and, once or twice, jumping up and down to barely noticeable changes in pace, I could not help but feel a bit sad. Gone were the proletariat theatrics. Gone was the captivating sense of community, the recognizable voices of Kyle Field, Mirah, or Khaela Maricich. In their place was an utter loneliness: he told stories of falling in and out of the world, encouraging the crowd to, literally, begin a sing-a-long with his dark tales of displacement. I wanted to climb up off the floor and give the man my shoes (he was barefoot) and comb his hair and straighten his spine. This is how he invited us in to a new point in his career.

By telling us stories of the tour’s van breaking down and him driving all through creation, and the rain, only to end up peeing on some stranger’s lawn? Maybe. But he never seemed to expect any sympathy for his mundane travails. Instead he continued, maundering through simple arrangements with no discernible structure, the end of one song only hinted at by a noticeable effusion of lyrics (mostly adjectives). The effect was hypnotic, and his drawn out interludes never interrupted the calm.

The night culminated in Elverum’s cover of Thanksgiving’s (read the review here!) “Do Not Be Afraid.” As he cheered on the audience to provide the titular chorus, yelling, “Don’t peter out! Don’t peter!” I sidled up next to a young hirsute guy with a movie camera. “I’m making a documentary for Thax Douglas [proclaimed Chicago’s rock and roll poet laureate]. Just capturing different live shows and situations. Plus, I really love Phil,” he whispered. And as I watched the crowd earnestly sing along, bobbing oneirically back and forth, I realized that everyone there, including me, really did love Phil. Then, it came as no surprise that most of the night was devoted to those awkward, off-kilter, untrained artists that followed him around the country, talking about their boring lives and their struggling art. That is what Phil loves, that unbridled aesthetic of the homemade, and perhaps with Mount Eerie he is returning to that do-it-yourself purity.

We were just sharing the love, man.

So, the night ended, and, against my every hope, I found no eschatological promise, no warrior messiah for the indie throngs. Phil only smiled when my love-struck friend showered him with humble praise. The parachute was already being taken down as we descended to the street. The rain had stopped. My hand stamp washed off that very night. I feel a bit guilty, now, expecting so much out of poor Phil Elverum. I feel as if I’m burdening him with all this talk of Mount Eerie emerging, swathed in White, from the elemental imperfection of the Microphones. He is still a favorite artist of mine, but that night, under the parachute and rain and sterile buzz of the venue’s only bathroom, he gained a new simplicity. I now believe he was just asking all of us if he could, one day, if it’s alright of course, pee on our front lawns.