It seems impossible in the Internet age for a “best-kept secret” to exist, but somehow, Indiana’s Elephant Micah fits the bill. It’s not for lack of material or talent, as Joseph O’Connell’s band has been extremely consistent and prolific through a string of EPs, full-lengths, singles, CD-Rs and miscellany dating back to at least the beginning of this decade. But whether intentional or not, there is a paucity of press and critical coverage surrounding the band, no widely spread stories, origin myths or silly gossip. Happily, though perhaps at the expense of a wider-listening audience, Elephant Micah fans have had little more than the music itself to feed their imaginations and soundtrack their lives. Familiar yet difficult to categorize, Elephant Micah’s songs run the gamut between feedback-soaked rust-belt vignettes to foggy slow-core to Appalachia-derived folk, all recorded faithfully to analog, from a perspective and aesthetic as solid and fully developed as those of names exponentially more well-known.
Whether or not Exiled Magicians reverses the trend remains to be seen, but ultimately that’s well beside the point. What’s clear is that the album should definitely appeal to fans of a certain sensibility (Jason Molina, Will Oldham and Sam Beam) while sounding musically quite apart and distinct from those artists. Songs like the standout “We Do” and “Levi and Daniel” are built around acoustic guitars that fall somewhere between picked and strummed, and embellished with mostly organic instrumentation, from banjo to organ, with the occasional wave of feedback. It’s a simple-enough formula on paper that proves anything but in practice. The song structures stretch and subvert the basic building blocks of I-IV-V writing to allow O’Connell’s cooing tenor to wander his songs’ peaks and valleys without lapsing into traditional or rote melodies. Similarly, the production (courtesy of fellow traveler Justin Vollmar) concentrates primarily on guitar and voice, letting touches like the cymbal crashes of “If I Wore Wigs” and the various drones of “New Nature” add its charms subtly without distracting from each song’s overall thrust.
Thematically, if there’s anything that draws the nine songs of Exiled Magicians together (plus the closing, gorgeous squall of an instrumental), it’s the idea of persona, public and private, how we’re seen by ourselves and by others. Some are explicit, “If I wore a wig / Would you know me? / If I changed your name / Could we change it back again? / Could we afford that kind of feeling?” Others play with the concept of image with broader implications. “Imperial Blues” at first seems like a too-obvious jab at former president George W. Bush’s administration (the album was written in 2005, recorded in 2007 and self-released before Third Uncle reissued it this year). Using “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as a template, it digs at both leader and followers, “Everybody knows about my nudity / And the bankruptcy of our empire / You’re content to pretend that you don’t know I’m naked,” using a backhoe instead of O’Connell’s usual verbal hand-trowels. But in context with the rest of the album’s explorations of image and identity, it ends up working. In “New Nature”, someone gets dressed up like a bear and moves menacingly through the woods, though they are “just another little girl.” On “Fortune Telling”, O’Connell entreats a woman to “Be my gypsy / Be my landlady.”
Roles and characters haunt the album, though it generally fails or are desperate attempts to mask some personal defect or untoward ambition. “Words won’t work for the actor,” O’Connell declares in “New Nature”, suggesting the desire to be someone other than who we are, to be inauthentic, will never end well. In Elephant Micah’s case, the songs all sound true as dirt, unbound by either tradition or self-conscious experimentalism, music as free from ego and image as can be found these days yet wholly applicable to our lives.