Review by Heather Phares
The searching, noisy-then-delicate music of Eric's Trip had a big impact on Phil Elverum's work in the Microphones and Mount Eerie, so this collaboration with Eric's Trip and Broken Girl singer Julie Doiron and guitarist Fred Squire is inspired, if only because it makes the connection between Elverum and Doiron's music even stronger. Though Lost Wisdom came together during some downtime for the three musicians, its simplicity and immediacy sound intimate instead of tossed off. This is the spare, somber, introspective side of Mount Eerie, with just the barest hints of Squire's guitar adorning Elverum and Doiron's voices. Doiron's singing, both with Eric's Trip and Broken Girl, has always been uniquely lovely and vulnerable, and Elverum uses her as perfectly as he has Mirah, the Blow's Khaela Maricich, and Woelv's Geneviève Castrée on other projects. He and Doiron sound completely natural yet haunting trading verses and harmonies on "Lost Wisdom" and "Grave Robbers" -- both of their voices, and the music that surrounds them, have a deceptively fragile urgency that barely rises above a whisper for most of the album. Even the album's loudest moment, "Voice in Headphones" (which, along with "What?," could pass for one of the bonus tracks on the deluxe version of the Microphones' The Glow, Pt. 2), still fits with the rest of Lost Wisdom's delicacy and directness. That simplicity applies to Elverum's songwriting as well; his imagery becomes more tangible with the years, getting to deeper truths about love, death, and rebirth without getting too tangled in words: it doesn't get much more direct than "You Swan Go On"'s "With your hand down my throat/You held on to my heart/And pumped the blood through." "If We Knew..." is a sweet song about aging, love, and marriage that doesn't sound sappy, while a warm glow turns into a destructive fire on "Flaming Home." Mount Eerie take many forms and sounds, showing how comfortable Elverum is with just a room and a guitar or a large cast of players performing his songs; Lost Wisdom is a small-scale gem that shows off his (and Doiron's) gifts to their finest.
Mount Eerie With Julie Doiron and Fred Squire:
[P.W. Elverum & Sun; 2008]
At a glance, a Phil Elverum/Julie Doiron meet-up seems entirely apt, perhaps even inevitable. The two share collaborators, hail from sleepy corners of their respective countries, and make music a Last.fm or Pandora bot would more than likely peg as "similar." Viewed a certain way, however, the two couldn't be more far afield. Elverum, as a songwriter, has long occupied himself with The Big Questions, his catalog full of probing meditations on birth and death, the elements, and the unknown. Doiron, conversely, has consistently stuck to the simple and domestic, quietly reveling in the tangible and everyday. Songs such as "Snowfalls in November" are patiently observed odes to satisfaction and serenity in the absolute. In short, Doiron is the contented period to Elverum's searching question mark.
The mini-album Lost Wisdom represents an intersection of those two distinct sensibilities and their resulting voices: Elverum, his tone often hesitant and sorrowful; Doiron, her singing reassuringly direct and familiar. For Doiron, this is a chance to wrap her warm, homespun vocals around Elverum's words of uncertainty, bringing earthly color to songs which, under the Mount Eerie banner alone, might emerge cold and gray. From her entrance on opening track "Lost Wisdom", a stately rumination rife with natural imagery which sets the tone for the album, through her solitary vocal on the Songs-era Leonard Cohen-evoking "If We Knew...", and on to the closing duet "Grave Robbers", Doiron is a reassuring presence in song-world often threatening to capitulate to doubt.
Indeed, it's this presence of a second voice that distinguishes Lost Wisdom amid the abundance of post-Microphones Phil Elverum material. To hear Elverum sing of his existential quandaries in isolation is frequently compelling, but with these songs often cast as duets, we're presented with the notion that Phil's struggles are universal. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on "Voice in Headphones", the closest thing to a standout track on Lost Wisdom, with its harmonized refrain-- borrowed from Björk's "Undo"-- of "It's not meant to be a strife/ It's not meant to be a struggle uphill." It's the sort of lyric Elverum would have the whole crowd singing along to at a show, and here-- surrounded as it is by plenty of brooding restraint-- it sounds resoundingly triumphant, a more terrestrial counterpart to the otherworldly song it quotes and a kind of modern day spiritual for those oppressed within.
Elverum, too, benefits from the de facto constraints of this collaboration. The album was recorded during a brief touring respite, forcing him to forgo the intricate (if still lo-fi) ornamentation that typically adorns his output. It is instead, as he told Pitchfork, a "documentary of a session." Even Fred Squire's electric guitar is notably unobtrusive as it complements the two voices and the steady rumble of Phil's acoustic. The result is a collection of songs so taut and concisely resonant as to be psalms. But psalms to be sung, perhaps, in secret: "Grave Robbers", the closing track, ends with someone abruptly shutting off the tape. In a way we're made to feel as though we've been eavesdropping all the while, but even so, seldom has an act of auditory voyeurism been so rewarding.
- Matthew Solarski, October 14, 2008