When: Tue., Jan. 20, 9 p.m. 2015
The Pinhook, Durham—The halting, elliptical and gorgeous folk-rock songs that Joseph O'Connell records as Elephant Micah are populated by places. During the new eight-song album, Where in Our Woods, for instance, he ushers the listener through a litany of specific but unspecified settings—the roof of a barn, the glow beneath a streetlight, the wreckage of a ship, the butterfly habitat of a garden, the bird sanctuary of a field.
These locations work, like the songs themselves, to imply vague feelings, of unease or hope or wonder. Can the human victims of that maritime wreckage be saved, or should they even? Will those birds stay in that field, allegiant to the human who has trained them, or will they zip along instinctual flight paths? As a songwriter, O'Connell asks many more questions than he answers, stirs more feelings than he intends to resolve. That approach follows him into conversation about Where in Our Woods, O'Connell's first album for Western Vinyl and first release since moving to Raleigh from Indiana late last year.
"It's always hard to talk about the topics. In some ways, the song is the best representation of anything that I could convey," says O'Connell. "The most interesting way I could already explain something about a song is already in the song."
These impressionistic beauties, which suggest a humble intersection of Richard Buckner and Chris Whitley, do stem from real-life encounters. Much of the album hinges on a half-year O'Connell had to spend working in London. The lurching, seven-minute number "Slow Time Vultures" emerged after O'Connell found himself surrounded by a massive migration of the scavengers; it's ominous but playful, too, the birds speaking like former city dwellers in search of easy country living. The shuffling and short "Demise of the Bible Birds" is about Wendell Hansen, an Indiana man who "put on a Christian-themed bird show" to reinforce good religious behavior. In 65 words, though, O'Connell holds issues of free will and self-reliance up to a skeptical light.
"I'm drawn toward the kind of lyrics that give the imagination plenty of room to explore," he says. "A lot of the writing that I end up doing is meant to have an open-endedness."
Mirah headlines and Todd Chandler opens. 9 p.m., $10, 117 W. Main St., Durham, 919-667-1100, thepinhook.com. —Grayson Haver Currin