Indiana’s Joseph O’Connell is Elephant Micah, a magisterial DIY project now early into its second decade. Going back to roughly 2002, he has been self-releasing records in small editions—his second full album, United States of Elephant Micah, exists in 32 physical copies—accompanied by simple instruments and found sounds, and featuring sparse accompaniment from an ever-changing guest list. On Where in Our Woods he plays every instrument (nylon-string guitar, portable pipe organ, toy piano, baritone ukulele) except a minimalist drum kit, played by his brother Matthew. Will Oldham, a longtime friend and inspiration, supplies harmony vocals.
Where in Our Woods seems poised to bring O’Connell to broader attention, even as one can hear no deliberate attempt on his part to reach further beyond his localized muse. Two of the album’s songs, “Rare Beliefs” and “Demise of the Bible Birds”, return to the subject of O’Connell’s 2010 album, Elephant Micah Plays the Songs of the Bible Birds, a quasi-concept album inspired by the late Reverend Wendell Hansen, who performed with his traveling evangelical bird show throughout Indiana and surrounding states for nearly 50 years. “Albino Animals” is built around three different stories reported in a single day’s issue of the local newspaper. “Slow Time Vultures” relays a family story of the first local observation of daylight savings time, when hundreds of vultures happened to descend upon his grandparents’ Indiana farm for no discernible reason. O’Connell makes no concessions to reach for a broader audience here; rather, he seems content to sit on his porch and wait for his audience to come to him. We would all do well to accept the invite to be drawn into this quiet, delicate album.
O’Connell sings in a warm voice, just this side of the upper register, evoking both the earthiness of Jason Molina and, indirectly, Jeff Hanson’s falsetto. His instrumentalism is minimalistic in a definitive sense, creating simple, repetitive patterns that are both calming and evocative, drawing the listener in and requiring only the paintbrush-like flourish of an accompanying instrument to create drama and resonance. His lyrics, equally minimalist, are nonetheless evocative in their spare symbolic resonance. O’Connell is the opposite of heavy-handed, offering his intentions as something to be teased out over repeated listening. “Where in our woods,” he sings the title phrase in the album’s opening song, “did the ghost make himself known?” What follows—a torn flag, graffiti on the market cross, a painted unicorn—evokes small town associations of significance. Every place has a story, fragmentary and impressionistic to the outsider, but felt deep in the bone of those who call it home. “We look absurd in this light shining everywhere” he sings in harmony with Oldham on the next song, “there’s no underground, only light shining everywhere.” What we see is what is there, but what is there is often not what we think we have seen. Such are the complexities of perspective and perception.
O’Connell amplifies the communal nature of perception in the three stories contained within “Albino Animals”. The death of an albino deer is attributed to “our hunters”, implicating every member of the community, not just the individual actors. So, too, with “our athletes” who meet a tragic end in an endurance contest and “our fathers” who inadvertently burn down a home in a meth bust gone wrong. We are all complicit in an event or, in the least, in its interpretation and placement into our lives, our collective narrative. Small town reality is constructed of private acts owned by the many, which grow into stories shared by all in collective narrative identity. This is an album that expertly explores those private/public narratives. “Slow Time Vultures” is a masterful example of that shared narrative identity, describing the collective observance of the first daylight savings time through the private experience of watching a massive committee of vultures descend upon a family barn roof. O’Connell plucks an open E string like a pensive heartbeat while giving voice to rural anxiety in the face of the growing urban need for speed in production and distribution: “All that we know is to linger behind / Ours are the spoils and the things that we can find / On our own time.” Our private lives will always be at the beck and call of a larger public desire.
This is a contemplative album, one for late nights or lazy afternoons, a quiet collection that demands attention. To put this record on and then go about the business of one’s day is to engage in the kind of activities that O’Connell mourns we’ve given ourselves over to. Like sitting on the porch swing with nothing else to do, this album’s pleasures exist in simply being. Buy it, put it on, listen. Become a piece of something simultaneously smaller and larger than the self.