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?