001: The Microphones
An introduction, plus reviews of The Microphones’ ‘Microphones in 2020’
organ grinder, n. - A musician who plays a hurdy-gurdy and usually performs on the street. Common in Europe from the late-18th to early 20th centuries.
First Things First…
Welcome to the first issue of Organ Grinder. My name is Jinhyung Kim, and earlier this year, I began Dancing About Architecture, a newsletter primarily dedicated to experimental music. It’s been a lot of fun, but also a bit lonely, so I decided to start Organ Grinder with a couple other writers and the same mission: to express our passion for music we normally can’t talk about with our friends but care deeply about. Each issue will contain reviews from our writers on the same release—usually a recent one; I may add other sections in future issues. For now, Organ Grinder will be landing in your inbox every other Monday.
Organ Grinder is just getting started, and I’d love to add more names to our roster. I’m looking for younger, newer writers, as well as those who often go unheard in conversations on the music we cover—BIPoC, women, people who are LGBTQ+, and others. If you want to apply to write, email me at email@example.com.
Our writers’ thoughts on a new release. This section will be the core of each issue.
The Microphones, Microphones in 2020 (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2020)
Phil Elverum is an indie musician best known for his (mostly) solo projects The Microphones (1996 - 2003) and Mount Eerie (2003 -). Dabbling in folk, rock, noise, ambient, black metal, and more, he’s received widespread critical acclaim for records like The Glow pt. 2 (2001) and A Crow Looked at Me (2017). Microphones in 2020 comprises a single 44-minute eponymous track and is his first album as The Microphones in 17 years.
Chloe Liebenthal: At my school, already pinned to the corkboard like a butterfly and displayed as a retreating memory, there’s an installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed called perhaps, there is no sequel which dissects the phrase ‘a better future awaits us’ and leaves it in its imprecision to melt into meaninglessness. Listening to Microphones in 2020, I thought of perhaps, there is no sequel, and also of the experience of walking by it on a sunny day. Rummaging through the chainlink continuum of moments that make up our lives, pulling it taut to examine the past without being able to find the slightest hint about the future, trying to square the knowledge that every second that passes by is in fact hurling me further into the unknown…. It’s a uniquely terrifying condition, even though it doesn’t feel like it because my life is pretty boring lately, in that there’s not really anything to be done about but to accept it. Microphones in 2020, in its sprawling cavalcade of re-examined old memories picked apart and pinned to the corkboard for display, is a statement of this acceptance. We are not in control, and that’s fine, pretty much. In the face of unimaginable tragedy, joy, and just as importantly, the totally mundane, we may choose to ignore our experiences or let them carry us further and further into the vast unknowable tomorrow. We may choose to grow, and if we are to survive this world, we must. Thanks, Phil, for telling it like it is.
Jinhyung Kim: Phil didn’t need to tell me, I already know: he’s sung the same song all his life. Each sonic experiment and thematic turn in his oeuvre, however abrupt or unanticipated, has always come from an ever-renewing desire to convey the world in its world-ness. It’s pure ontological awe—a fascination with “the true state of all things.” That line’s from his last record, Lost Wisdom pt. 2, and it shows up a lot on Microphones in 2020. Phil quotes his past work (lyrically + musically) quite often here; he’s done so for decades. But that practice has never been referential so much as motivic. Certain words, lines, chords, and bits of studio magic recur as variations on a core idea, rather than arrows pointing to some origin. At this point, when Phil repeats himself, there’s rarely a straight line from reference to referent, and the former’s power doesn’t rely on the latter. It’s all about the echoes, big and small, in between.
Like Phil, I’m obsessed with personal motifs. I’ve written and rewritten my life over and over again, as those of us in love with the present but unable to hold it for long are wont to do. That’s why I connect deeply with his music. It’s also why, despite moments of real beauty, his latest LP feels superfluous. You really don’t need my exegesis of Elverum’s work—that’s exactly what this 44-minute track is. He explains his music without simultaneously doing what makes it powerful. While most lyrics and sounds here aren’t explicit references, their subjugation to metatextual commentary renders them dull examples, disconnected from one another and isolated from imaginary wholes. So much is missing: a tension between past and future in struggling to express timeless feelings in new ways; a sense that this album is greater than the sum of its parts. Phil may often look to his past, but his music has always had its hermeneutics of self embedded in an active and present-minded poetics. All Microphones in 2020 compels me toward is everything that came before it. Nothing new here bothers me; what’s missing does.
Zachariah Cook: I briefly met Phil Elverum before a show on his last tour. “How are you?” I asked, nervously approaching the merch booth he stoically guarded. “Good,” he replied curtly, with no change in expression. “What can I do for you?” His voice, which hasn’t changed a lick since The Glow pt. 2, suggested both exhaustion and inexhaustible patience. “I’ll take that please,” I said, waving my hand across the many “artifacts” of his life and landing on a vinyl copy of A Crow Looked at Me. “$20,” he said. And just like that, he exchanged with me one of the most intimate and revealing documents of grief ever written. I haven’t been able to bring myself to revisit it. With Microphones in 2020, I have the freshest sounding record Elverum has produced since… well, his last one. It’s *so* contemporary, I know it’s destined to ossify in the museum exhibit that is his merch table in the years to come. But you know what? I finally have the answer to my question—“how are you?”
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