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Elephant Micah - Genericana Music Album Reviews

Despite its title, Joseph O’Connell’s second release for Western Vinyl is his most distinctive release to date, an elegant study of life’s circularity set against a backdrop of slowcore folk and woozy rock.

On his umpteenth album as Elephant Micah, Joseph O’Connell transforms his comfortable Midwestern folk into something harder to define. The compact six-song cycle—only his second record on Western Vinyl, after many years of self-releasing—begins and ends with the sound of staticky waves crashing through stereo channels. These are the most pronounced of many subtle concentric circles that ripple through the album’s lyrics and structure. 2015’s Where in Our Woods was a pretty good Will Oldham record, but it was more deserving of the hilarious title Genericana than the slowcore folk and woozy rock, colored with analog electronics and vocal delays, that composes O’Connell’s most distinctive release to date. If Arthur Russell had been a product of the Elephant 6 collective rather than downtown New York art music, he might have written songs like this. But there’s more to Genericana than that.

The change in Elephant Micah’s music feels at least partly related to a change in scenery. A former resident of Indiana, where he worked as a folklorist, O’Connell now lives in North Carolina, a couple of hours from the coast. If his old music had something familiar, landlocked, and level about it, Genericana is shaped by both the stranger’s fresh perspective on new terrain and the ambient call of the sea. There’s also a new toy in play: Working with his brother Matt, who is a former Moog employee, and Jason Evans Groth of Magnolia Electric Co., O’Connell built an analog synth he calls the Mutant. A small console with (of course) a woodgrain finish, its wet, spongy, gentle timbre endows O’Connell’s sparse, low-slung percussion and spindrift guitar licks with oceanic depth and weight.

I just segued sharply from nature to technology, it’s true—but that’s because O’Connell does it, too. Genericana is discreetly meta, conflating the natural world and the mechanical medium that captures it. This juxtaposition and O’Connell’s fixation on circles whorl together most elegantly on opener “Surf A.” The bass thumps as slowly and evenly as O’Connell’s lonesome voice does, while the Mutant burps and moans forlornly. “If I were a taper, I’d magnetize this tone, press rewind at the end,” he sings. At one point, with vocal delays, he adds, “Go around on the track. I’d circle and come back.” The song churns with wheels within wheels, O’Connell’s voice wrapping around itself like the album does, and like the sea, and like magnetic tape, and like, if we follow the line to its logical conclusion, life itself. The simple, longing strains conceal a thorny philosophical question: Eternal recurrence, anyone?

Just one hissing cymbal serves as the song’s muted climax. O’Connell isn’t given to grand, impulsive gestures; he prefers patient development and sculpting. “Surf A” bears such careful scrutiny because it funds the rest of the album with its circular motifs. They go underground in “Fire A,” a trad palate cleanser with lazy, sweet tangles of electric guitar and peaceful vocal refrains, and “Life B,” a minimalist dream pastoral that wills itself into motion with stoical slowness. Then they resurface in two songs—“Fire B,” which gives the Mutant’s wobbly trills an interlaced workout, and “Surf B,” a crashing rock finale—where the opener’s rhetorical structure and vocal melody recombine, like the solution to an equation.

It would come as no surprise if there were an arcane mathematical structure behind Genericana’s deliberate permutations of words, melodies, and textures. But you don’t need to know what it is. You feel it as a force, a sort of inward spiral—a circle shrinking to a point, a pinhole through which the circle bursts back into fullness. “We start all over again. Let it turn into dust. It’s gone, whatever it was,” O’Connell concludes, but nothing’s gone. We’re cycled back to the rolling waves where we began, the same words and gestures snapping into their preordained places again.

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