Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Other Listening Room: Phil

If you haven’t gathered by now, I really love production. Pure sound intrigues me; songwriting is important, of course, but if you can combine production and songwriting, you are an artist, not just some college student fumbling across a couple of lovely chord progressions and your fucking innermost fears and desires. Fuck your fears and desires—gimme something I don’t already have.

Many auteur producers have floated through recorded music history: Phil Spector (innocent!?), Brian Wilson (sane!), Brian Eno (bald!), the Bomb Squad (black!), Kevin Shields (sane?)… Every decade seems to have its main man (and they are mostly men, except for Kate Bush,) and this decade that man is Phil Elverum. Phil has a way with taking acoustic melancholy and putting it through the gauntlet of his seemingly limitless understanding of acoustic space to create an amazing lo-fi/hi-fi hybrid that dashes all your expectations of where a song can go.

Phil is most famous for his work with the Microphones and Mt. Eerie, but he is also responsible for a huge amount of work outside his main outlets. He’s worked with nearly everyone in the K Records stable, as well as almost anyone in his Anacortes, WA hometown. He’s done huge (the Microphones’ Glow, pt. 2), he’s done small (his acoustic live performances, Mt. Eerie’s 11 Old Songs), the complex (the Microphones’ Mt. Eerie is a concept album that takes him through the earth, up into the sky to the sun, to meet with Death and God and finding himself there) and the simple (his latest single decries the internet and smoking). On some of his production work, he lets the artist maintain control and he only appears in the details; at other times, his production voice looms so large that it reduces the artist to a guest on their own song (and the song is all the better for it). At the height of his fame, (Pitchfork album of the year in 2001, tours of Asia, the aforementioned Mt. Eerie album,) Phil ditched his record company, started his own mail order business, changed the name of his band and moved home.

The key to Phil Elverum’s genius is most certainly his use of editing, stereo and the abuse of your own expectations. Guitars bounce back and forth between speakers, ghost voices circulate, harmonies are shattered and put back together. Simplicity caves in to mountainous overdubbing which sounds more simple than the deceiving complexity of the simplicity that preceded it. What? I’m trying to say that in Phil’s hands, simplicity becomes complex and complexities mesh so completely that they become simple again. Put on a track by Phil and you may find yourself scrambling for the volume knob. Just fair warning.

The Pull,” from the Microphones’ It Was Hot, So We Stayed in the Water is a perfect example of his technique. Predominantly acoustic and minimalist, it begins with about a minute of two sloppy-yet-kempt guitars jumping left and right and into each other. There is a steady bassnote hum in the middle, but these guitars are recorded like others might record drums, with certain chords playing the parts of snares and cymbals on either side. Phil’s voice comes in on the right side, the acoustic goes down to strumming on the left and a huge space opens in the middle. The guitars reenter briefly, only to be shunted aside again by Phil, now stretching his voice out while slowing the strums down to almost nothing, and a double-Phil and 3-part harmony backing enters and seems to vibrate the guitars across the audio spectrum and on into… just some single guitar notes. Just when you think it’s all building towards something, Phil strips it down to almost nothing at all. Aah, but he’s just fuckin’ with you. Now that he’s got you paying attention… huge drums (free-stylin’ all Keith Moon-like) and 5 or 6 guitars flay your mind with white noise and washes of melody, so deep, so complex… you start to hear bells in the back and as the guitars fade, you realize that you are listening to rolling glass. It’s quite something.

Mirah is a friend and ex-label-mate at K Records, the Olympia, Washington label that gave us Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Soundsystem, Mecca Normal and The Blow. Her Advisory Committee features many contributions from Phil, including album centerpiece “Cold, Cold Water,” which may just be Phil’s greatest single song. The CD single features the song itself and seven tracks that separate the various elements of the song, so that you can edit/mix it yourself… or maybe just admire the insane amount of artistry involved.

A strummed Mexican guitar and Mirah’s “I saddled up my pony right and rode into the ghostly light” sets up a Western feeling, sparse and desolate—only to be shattered by martial drums, swelling strings and choruses and a belted “It was wide, wide open, wide, wide open,” the grandeur becoming almost too much to bear. Breaking down to church organs, the song becomes intensely personal, an interior monologue about love and a certain relationship. The organs fade and sweet guitar chords switch between stereo sides and all is happy. That’s the first 45 seconds or so.

A muted electric plays some chords and Mirah wonders and asks, “Is it not enough to be complete? Please? Let me give you everything you need, please?” Those same strings swell again, this time with a cello anchor and an amazing percussion device like trotting horses showing just how vast the heart and desire can be. The monologue gets darker, ruminating on the loneliness that comes part-and-parcel with love over percussive plucked guitar notes and a forlorn violin. The cello then dominates, mounting tension and expectation towards some huge blowout that never quite comes as the relationship falters under a man’s “hungry eye.” As she threatens to leave him (over a more strident Mexican acoustic), Phil goes whole-hog for the “Good Vibrations” reference: a beautiful, melting, multi-part harmony chorus of Mirahs lap over each other like ocean waves, only to fade into aggressive electric guitars and mounting drums and a wail of regret. All the tension of building and collapsing sections come to a head and everything rises together, the Mexicans guitars, the strings, the horses, the violins, the martial drums… and as she leaves him in the dust, Phil leaves “Good Vibrations” a “get better soon” hallmark card.

It’s an absolutely devastating song on so many levels, with musical invention trumping emotional breadth (there’s a whole relationship, beginning to end, here), while leaving room for both. “Cold, Cold Water” is a complete masterpiece of a song. The damn thing brings a tear to my eye. Music’s the greatest thing, isn’t it?

Monday, May 21, 2007

For Pico.

Say these words aloud: “You boy--What's it like to wet your foot in a cold swimming pool?--What does your voice sound like underwater?--At night?--Can you do the chickenskin swim?--Can you do the chlorine gargoyle?--Can you wriggle like an eel?”

Ahh, strong emotion… it’s what music conveys like no other medium. If you really were saying those words, or--heaven forbid--hearing them, there’s bound to be a murder going on. Subtle displays of emotion certainly have their place in music, but it’s screaming hatred, blinding love or intense desire that really makes music the art that it is.

Whitehouse (formed 1980) is a British band that specialize in something called “power electronics.” At first glance, that sounds like a redundancy, but it does make some sense. If early-80s British synthpop used synthesizers to approximate a full band (including strings and horn sections) under the total control of the producer, Whitehouse perverts this purpose… maybe “molest” is a better word… if molestation included a lot more blood. Whitehouse rewire synths into pile-driving instruments of torture wrapped up in insults, which seems to be the basic gist of their lyrical matter (and has gotten them into quite a lot of trouble in their native England, where censorship of violent content and accusations of misogyny have kept their name in the papers). Further proof is in that name: “Whitehouse” has nothing to do with our president’s home, but is a reference to both a British porn mag and the deceased anti-porn crusader Mary Whitehouse. Live, Whitehouse is said to make Wolf Eyes (the current kings of noise) look like frightened little girls.

Wriggle like a Fucking Eel,” which was released on 12” in 2002, is both representative in its typical Whitehouse sound and something different for the band, as the structure is unconventionally (for Whitehouse) conventional. A sound like a broken air raid siren blares before someone yells out the quoted threats and some contraption starts spitting out bass tones, which sometimes sound like fucked up tribal drums, sometimes like a slowly dying digital fart. The “singer” then gets angry, eventually giving such a scream so as to drown out the air raid sirens, which by this time are beginning to sound like buzzing saws and Sonic Youth blended into a goo. Structurally, “Wriggle” is pretty damn Nirvanaesque, with a loud-soft-LOUD progression that heightens the drama and allows you the pleasure of getting your ass kicked twice.

Download the song, give it a listen. Turn it up loud enough that some child under the age of 12 will be warped by it. I guarantee that you probably won’t hear anything else so visceral today. Sometimes, people listen to music with too much of their brain. I’m just suggesting you give your skull some attention.

Throbbing Gristle also confront listeners with the brutal side of human life. These granddaddies were making audiences vomit (literally) 30 years ago, using visual stimuli (like band member Cosey Fanni Tutti cutting herself from throat to crotch,) or deafening aural tones that turned guts inside out. Their lyrics concerned the blight [sic] of the poor, burn victims and bird shit (I think, although it could be about jerking off). Lead singer/spokesman Genesis P-Orridge started cults, baited the media with Nazi imagery, and is now partially female. Their music was deceptively simple, almost minimalist in execution, but open-ended enough that their “songs” could stretch out upwards of half an hour or more.

Discipline” is Throbbing Gristle’s last single (released 1981) and was never recorded in the studio. Genesis was always at his best before a bemused audience, but this performance gets downright weird, with audience participation bordering on cult-like uniformity. Witness the frightened looks from the boys and girls when Genesis gets in their faces or hits himself repeatedly during his tantrum, witness the girl holding her head as if it might explode, witness the strangely sedate dance the audience spontaneously participates in. What starts as “I want discipline” slowly turns into “What do WE want?” over crude rhythms and noise generators, and while the music doesn’t really progress, it’s on a death march of repetition that drains the mind and helps you remember that we’re all animals.

Is this even music? The British government labeled Throbbing Gristle as the “wreckers of civilization” after their first live shows and Genesis is quoted as having said something like about changing the very nature of music. Shows included blood enemas and Cosey’s pornography, and the censor baiting got to the point that Genesis had to leave England before they took his children away. TG is now making a comeback with an album called Part Two: The Endless Not, but some of the old aggression (and even some of the humor) is missing. Maybe 25 years just mellows a man (woman). Who knows, in 25 years, I could be listening to some limp-ass Fusion records. Enjoy while you can.