Mount Eerie: New York - 24 September 2014
Phil Elverum brought minimalist arrangements of songs from upcoming Mount Eerie release Sauna to NYC's Le Poisson Rouge, along with plenty of mystery and endearing stage banter.
Critics and music fans alike have a tendency of categorizing certain music by the seasons. With every summer, there comes the quest for the Summer Song, the radio hit that shares characteristics with that carefree time of year. While a Fall Song has never been as hotly trailed, there are plenty of people -- perhaps those a little more partial to minor key offerings than Top 40 fare -- who make mixes in tribute to the crisp and chilly season.
For me, no other music speaks to fall like Phil Elverum’s. Specifically, the music Elverum performs under the name Mount Eerie conjures images and sensations from late Septembers and Octobers throughout my childhood. The dampness of the Pennsylvania woods I grew up in, the warmth and scent emanating from our wood stove, and the drowsiness that comes from a cozy, dimly lit environment linger in the dry air of my Brooklyn apartment when I listen to 2012’s Clear Moon, no matter the temperature outside. It was a bit fortuitous, however, that Elverum recently stopped by Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge on the second day of fall. Although 2014 has not and will not see the release of any new Mount Eerie material, a double album, entitled Sauna is set for early arrival in 2015. The set lists throughout the tour consisted largely of stripped down previews of this new album, but the minimalist arrangements still displayed highly recognizable Mount Eerie touchstones of mystery and wonder, and carried the feeling of being from a world not quite our own, but similar to a world that may have existed in our past.
The cavernous Le Poisson Rouge also acted as the setting for my first Mount Eerie live encounter in 2009, a show that could not have been more alien from the set I witnessed on September 24. Touring in support of the black metal-inspired Wind’s Poem, the 2009 set saw a full band producing epic sound at almost Swans-level volume. Having two drummers on stage will do that. Being near New York University, the show was filled with many students, some perhaps curious about Wind’s Poem’s warranted acclaim, others possible indie devotees who had been following Elverum since his previous incarnation as The Microphones.
Mount Eerie’s recent outing was about the pin-drop silence in almost every way. Elverum was joined by one other musician -- Carson Churchill -- and the crowd was populated by fans who applauded in somber admiration of both familiar songs like Clear Moon’s “the Place Lives” and Sauna previews. The quiet was intercut often, however, by Elverum’s consistently unpredictable stage banter, which at times referenced Seinfeld and at one point involved Elverum asking us “Can you feel the bass in your butt?” Although the 50 minute set moved along swiftly enough, this definitely undercut material that is not always conducive to the somewhat distracting atmosphere of a rock show. Sauna is an album reportedly inspired by Vikings and Zen Buddhism and, although such concepts aren’t always so easily grasped when having a virginal listen while standing among strangers, the low lights and general intimacy of Le Poisson Rouge worked in emphasizing the reflective quality of the songs.
The sparseness of the songs -- a keyboard was resorted to a few times, but nylon-stringed guitar was constant -- helped in underlining the sometimes koanlike statements on which Elverum is prone to closing his songs. These end words spent too little time in the air, with Elverum moving on to an introduction for the next song before what was expressed could be fully grasped. More than anything, this whet the appetite for Sauna, and the anticipation of being alone with headphones, the songs, and the mysteries that repeat listens will reveal.
Elverum’s stage banter was consistently golden throughout the set, so much so that he even complimented himself on it at one point. After playing new song “Pumpkin”, Elverum announced, “I was just thinking as we were playing that, ‘this is a really boring song’,” before recounting a memory of seeing the fate of a Halloween pumpkin after the holiday had passed. The song proved evocative enough without the explanation, but the endearing and self-depreciating way in which Elverum handled the anecdote added to the song’s dimensions. It was a moment in the set that conjured as many sensations and insights as enveloping yourself in Elverum’s music alone. While we will have to wait a little longer to discover what Sauna’s songs will sound like fleshed out, it is safe to assume they will keep the fires burning beyond the seasons.