South Union Arts – Chicago
I’m not going to use the word terrible, for fear of some lo-fi, indie-punk blacklist from the legions of K Records fans, so I’ll be polite and say that Calvin Johnson, in any iteration, is an acquired taste. I was hoping to avoid the situation of having to write about him altogether, as it was initially listed as Mount Eerie opening for Mr. Johnston, but a last minute switch landed me in front of an hour-long set of Calvin and his minimalist acoustic wanderings. The tiny church-turned-venue is so small that any footsteps carry audible weight and that night it was packed beyond capacity. Before uttering a word, he sternly looked out over the crowd with the intensity of a preacher about to deliver a sermon; he’s a strong personality with a long standing place in a community that’s contributed much to what is big now (Modest Mouse and the Gossip both found their early homes on his imprint, K Records.) While Mr. Johnson is challenging, when it works, it’s transfixing; the baritone pulling you into the depths of his lyrics and his charm strong enough to supersede any off-notes and meandering songwriting. Between songs he’s especially charismatic, cracking jokes with ease. I’d honestly be more inclined to attend a 2 hour lecture on the history of K Records than see him perform his music. (A monologue about a fan’s hilarious confusion over Phil Elverum including cds with the vinyl was probably worth the price of admission) His songs do have moments where there’s beauty, especially when they dip into themes of sadness. His voice, at times reminiscent of The Angels of Light’s Michael Gira, can capture the melancholy till it’s tangible in the air. When the songs tread on downbeat notes, a kind of restraint can be found in his voice and he’s less inclined to push it beyond his range. Not everything failed to my ears, near the end of the set, a slowed down version of “I’m Down,” off 2005’s Before The Dream Fades, was a moment of gorgeous simplicity. The barren chords in conjunction with the somber line “I’m down, and Lucifer never felt so good” made for such uncomplicated beauty that balanced out much of the earlier moments when I was squirming in my seat.
As you can hear by his live LPs as the Microphones, his shows are affable and informal. While Calvin stood high on the stage, basked in the light, Phil sat down in a chair positioned so that if he leaned forward the lights spilled behind him and cast his face was in darkness. His speaking voice is somewhat small and charming; the between song banter leading into him meekly saying “I’m going to play some songs now.” As he started to sing, he brought forth wandering little tales rooted in rural imagery that become meditations on his co-existence with the world. When he closed his eyes to sing, you could see his strength rising with moments of song, as his voice has a masterful range when pushed. It often feels as if he treats the audience as a singular person, singing as I’d imagine he would to a few friends listening in his living room. Like a busker who suddenly finds himself singing to 200 people, he had a bit of bashfulness; occasionally stopping to apologize for his rambling between songs.
Just as much as Johnson’s raucous baritone could alienate a potential fan, Elverum’s off kilter phrasing and the delicate tremble in his voice might do the same for another; it’s ultimately subjective as to what appeals to you. Elverum work is very personal, in the sense that each song gives you the feeling that you’re rummaging through his dresser drawers unattended. He has a certain fixation with rural imagery, calling upon the energy of lakes and mountains as an outlet for his sometimes morbid, often beautiful existential crisis.
Live and solo, his songs morph, creating recognizable but vastly different versions of what you’d hear on record. He’ll freely play with the tempo and phrasing, songs only familiar when a particular bit of imagery or melody is sung. When he played, “The Intimacy of the World With the World” I couldn’t tell it actually was the song till the wonderful line “mist married to branches married to me with my eyes.” Judging by Evlrum’s ideology, I could hazard a guess that there’s a copy of Walden somewhere on his bookshelf.
There’s a sincerity in his work as Mount Eerie is unmatched by many other contemporary songwriters. In between songs, he talked a little bit about the venue and the ex-church’s place amidst the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification as it’s surrounded on all sides by new development and franchises. When he said that it was “special that we were here” and you can feel that the words, while potentially corny, held an absolute sincerity when coming from his mouth.