For the past 14 years, Elephant Micah’s Joseph O'Connell has quietly self-released his work on CD-R and limited LPs, sometimes collaborating with the psych-folk imprint Time-Lag Records or other very small labels. Despite the project’s almost secretive status, Elephant Micah has repeatedly caught the attention of NPR, and has been championed by an impressive cohort of like-minded artists, including Jason Molina, Hiss Golden Messenger, Dark Dark Dark, Hurray for the Riff Raff.
Where in Our Woods, the 12th Elephant Micah album and the first for Western Vinyl, is defined by its limited palette. The arrangements foreground nylon-string guitar and an antique portable pump organ. A stripped-down drum set, a baritone ukulele, a toy recorder, and harmony vocals (sung by Will Oldham, a friend of and key influence on O’Connell) round out the sound. This sparse ensemble leaves O’Connell’s voice room to breathe, while elevating and magnifying the poetry of his songs.
The album follows an ensemble cast of human and animal characters as they negotiate the supernatural and the mundane: “Light Side” catalogues a friend’s search for sublime experience through a self-described “redneck mysticism” involving in drugs, sex, and travel. “Rare Beliefs” and “Demise of the Bible Birds” explore the world of a "Bible Bird Man" from Noblesville, Indiana, who trained exotic birds to perform stunning Christian-themed stunts. “Albino Animals” is a modern day journalistic ballad, summarizing three stories found in one edition of O'Connell's hometown newspaper: readers responding to the recent slaying of an albino deer, husband-and-wife meth cooks escape federal prosecution based on an error in legal process, and a rower with local roots attempts a transatlantic passage that ends in disaster. The album closes with “Slow Time Vultures,” which was inspired by the descent of hundreds of migrating vultures on O'Connell's parents’ farm in southern Indiana. At the time of this avian congress, state government was instituting the observance of daylight savings time for the first time in Indiana. As O’Connell explains, "Maybe it goes without saying that the unexplained appearance of a sky full of vultures might seem like a harbinger of doom. I wondered if it related to the time change. At its core, this song is in the tradition of American country songs that express indignation toward the idea of progress." Throughout the album, O'Connell deftly transforms the stuff of everyday American life into a series of entrancing meditations on culture, nature, religion, and modernity.