Over the past few years Eli Winter has become a part of a burgeoning movement in solo guitar that’s moving away from the folk-blues strains that have dominated for so long. Embracing an emotive touch that wraps its fingers around jazz, bluegrass, flamenco, and Americana as often as it does folk, Winter’s last record was an engrossing listen. The record is joyous, but not entirely free of scars, and it finds many of Winter’s contemporaries along for the ride. It’s obvious that Winter has a hunger for new sounds and quiet corners on the record shelf, and I asked him to contribute a pick to the Hidden Gems series. Check out his deep dive into an overlooked 2015 minimalist folk gem from Elephant Micah.
“The first thing you need to know about Joseph O’Connell is that he’s written at least two, if not three, of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard,” confesses Eli. “The second is that he’s shared these songs under the name Elephant Micah since at least the early 2000s, and one of these songs is called “Rare Beliefs.” It closes a record Elephant Micah released in 2015 called Where in Our Woods, and it strikes me as a microcosm for the record. Its lyrics draw from a group of birds owned by the late Reverend Wendell Hansen, who into his early nineties, around the Midwest, presented tours of this group performing lessons from the Bible. The music is unhurried, quietly insistent, spare yet rich, and arresting.”
“As long as I’d heard about Elephant Micah’s music, I’d understood it to have a curious power for close listeners. If I remember correctly, writers have often described it as having a “cult following.” I first learned about it through the internet, as I’ve learned about most music, when I saw that MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger had tweeted a link to watch a video for a WNYC session in which Elephant Micah played “Still Life Blues.” If I remember correctly this would have been around 2013, by which time I’d already become enamored with Hiss Golden Messenger’s stunning and rightfully loved Bad Debt. The elements of that performance — an acoustic guitar tuned down a step from standard, harmonium, violin — build with the song into a palatial, kaleidoscopic drone whose timbres blend with such clarity it seems fated. That performance still stops me in my tracks just to think about it. Much of the music I love, or maybe the way I love it, beggars words. Such is the case with “Still Life Blues.”
“Where in Our Woods is a bit different. As Elephant Micah releases go it’s — um — do I say “prototypical”? Three years after releasing the aforementioned, O’Connell released the bold, perhaps waggish Genericana, in which — if I have this right — he interprets and reinterprets three songs from his back catalogue, including “Still Life Blues,” with new instruments, new approaches and new bandmates (including his brother, Matt). Three years after that came Vague Tidings, bringing to bear songs O’Connell had originally written on a DIY tour to Alaska fifteen or so years before. Other releases are no less compelling, if less visible. Set against the context of Elephant Micah’s discography, then, Where in Our Woods comes off to me as relatively straight-ahead — at least on a structural level. As I listen I don’t hear the sorts of embellishments that crop up on those more recent records, maybe because O’Connell does almost everything him-self. He sings, plays organ and nylon-stringed guitar, Matt drums, Will Oldham sings some harmonies. All the music needs.”
“Certain aspects of the music superficially recall so-called “slowcore” (tempos, timbral qualities evoking Talk Talk’s later records, references to someone named “Michael”) or “Americana,” but not because it’s trying to be those things. It’s neither dogmatic, self-conscious nor showy. The qualities of “Rare Beliefs” echo throughout the record, in lyrics and music: Spotify-approved “No Underground,” whose foundation is fingerstyle guitar; the gentle thrums of “By the Canal” or “Slow Time Vultures;” Oldham’s graceful guest turns. It bears on my own music, surely, the impression of focusing sound to a point, lyrics that don’t crack the bridge. Here are Bible birds, golden robes, animals personified, reckoning with kingdoms and technics and the past.”
“Perhaps it’s no surprise that O’Connell, like fellow inspiration Nathan Salsburg, went to Earlham College and has worked in folklore and archives, or that he released a split single with Hiss Golden Messenger that marked one of Paradise of Bachelors’ first releases, or that he shared bills with Jason Molina, or even that an old band of his played a show with My Morning Jacket in 2000. It’s definitely no surprise that you have to dig to find that stuff out. Which is to say, the point of this music isn’t clout bullshit. The sort of support Elephant Micah’s music has received is quite separate from the sheer enveloping beauty of the music. The point is that, this whole time, Elephant Micah has been making music for music’s sake, and Where in Our Woods is an excellent entryway into an especially giving catalogue. As a working musician it remains — like Salsburg and Oldham and Spenking and TJO and Daniel Bachman and so many more— a fount of creative influence and reassurance. As a listener it’s a must.”
A lovely record that’s every bit as tender as Eli’s description, and thankfully it’s not too hard to track down. The LP appears to be out of print, but CDs and digital make this readily accessible for 2022 audiences. It’s worth a listen (or three) and makes for a nice accompaniment to Winter’s new album out now on Three Lobed.
Support the artist. Buy it HERE.