But even if you don't buy Elvrum's explanations, there is no getting around the fact that the record feels like it's telling a story. A large part of the 17-minute opening track is devoted to getting the listener into a receptive mood: The foghorn and ambient hiss are all there is for a while, until a quiet heartbeat joins the mix. Slowly, you forget you put a record on at all - until Elvrum begins to chop up that ambient sound, splicing it together with actual silence and turning nothingness into a drum beat. The pace quickens subtly, building into a noisy tribal cacophony, and then it stops completely, giving way to a quavering, amateurish vocal.
That vocal is definitely telling a story, but damned if you can tell what it is. It's all in the present tense: "See me" do this, "see me" do that, "here comes a black ship." The narrator is running for cover from an unidentified pursuer, and his fear closes the track, having transformed into a percussive crashing and growling static.
The record goes on like this, and you don't have to decode the occasional lyrics to feel like you're going on a trip. These aren't songs that you will hum for days, they're moods that might affect you without your knowledge - textures that will alternatingly agitate and calm you, and leave you with a long, tapering fade out that will make you want to sit still for a while. It's not for everybody, but there are special pleasures to be had here.
PROTEST SONGS, PART 2
A while back, a politically sophisticated reader took issue with my championing of current-events-inspired songs by Steve Earle and Sleater-Kinney. (At one point, the art fan dismissed Earle by pointing out his drug use; I wonder if he only appreciates the work of artists with no self-destructive habits?) Clearly, my defense of "John Walker's Blues" was too subtle; allow me to suggest a more straightforward response to our fearless Commander In Chief: "The President," from King Missile III's new The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (Instinct Records). Unfortunately, I can't quote much of the "song": Even the anti-American tree-huggers at this rag would have a problem with the density and venom of the vulgarities hurled at Dubya in this three-minute rant - but when I e-mail an MP3 of the song around the office, I'll bet it gets enjoyed more than once. In fact, most of the record is a potty-mouthed rant against the things that bother all right-minded people: paper cuts, castration, cannibalism, and George Bush. (Although it's not all negative: One song takes pains to talk about the "truly remarkable job" that Jennifer Love Hewitt has done - compared to some leaders, at least - in responding to the recent threats against America.)
For those who can only appreciate dissent in hindsight, a recent DVD called Smothered (Docurama) chronicles the difficulty the Smothers Brothers had with censors during the 1967-69 run of their CBS variety show. The clean-cut, all-American brothers caused quite a stir by using network television to suggest that the Vietnam war wasn't the brightest idea in the world, and this disc talks at length about the fallout. Honestly, it's not very good in cinematic terms - seeing it mainly makes you wish somebody would reissue the actual series on DVD - but it's nice to know that, even in one of America's darkest hours, there were enough people receptive to an anti-war humor show to give Bonanza a run for its money in the ratings. •