The Hush of Early Mornings and PHOX

When I moved into my little Durham bungalow last year, it was with the express purpose of playing my stereo whenever I damn well pleased. Prior to the move, I’d only ever lived in spaces with shared walls, and I felt the incessant burden of being careful about disturbing my neighbors. The people-pleaser side of me, the one hesitant to impose on anyone else, felt hyperaware of the volume and time of day when I chose to put a record on, largely because I’ve been on the other side of that wall. There’s nothing so grating as an oblivious neighbor who blares their music at odd hours and intrudes on your space.

Once I came to inhabit a single-family home, a wondrous sense of freedom sprouted. I didn’t just listen to music loudly—I reveled in the opportunity to do so throughout the day, without a second thought about impinging on someone else. But now all of this is winding down. In six months, I’ll be moving to Toronto, where I’ll once again rent an apartment with neighbors close at hand. My hours of stereo autonomy are dwindling.

Lately, I’ve been luxuriating in my remaining liberty. Ever since dysautonomia upended my life, I’ve become a (very) early riser. I awaken in the hours before dark gives way to dawn, and take advantage of that seemingly stolen hour by putting on a record. The sound blankets my house in a way that feels precious. It’s a sonic kind of coziness. That’s because mornings—weekday mornings, especially—call for a certain kind of hush.

I regularly turn to Chopin and Rachmaninoff, metallic Malian guitar, or Mississippi John Hurt’s resplendent, reverent voice. But I’ve also been revisiting PHOX‘s 2014 self-titled debut. The Wisconsin-based band deals in capacious folk and whimsical arrangements, led by singer Monica Martin’s chromatic voice. Thanks to its six (sometimes seven) members, PHOX builds an ornate soundscape that never feels overwhelming—just inviting.

PHOX only ever released one full-length album. Even though it would’ve been lovely to get more from the band, their self-titled effort is a satisfying gem. The first three songs, “Calico Man,” “Leisure,” and “Slow Motion,” form one of the strongest opening arcs in recent memory, but my personal favorite is “Satyr and the Faun.” The opening phrase—a harmonic interplay between acoustic guitar, piano, and a bending electric guitar—leaves me woozy still. After that hazy instrumental, Martin’s voice sets the scene about a promise made but never kept, developed through Greek mythology. “You are the satyr/ You’re not the faun,” she sings with growing resonance. “Said you’d see me later/ But you never called.”

The kind of empty love the central figure offers Martin isn’t enough—and she knows it. “And so I have to run, to run, to run,” she sings, her voice growing more insistent. She cannot fold herself into another relationship that treats her carelessly. She cannot, as Jenny Slate wrote so beautifully in her book Little Weirds, “add sourness to [her] sap anymore just to fit onto a menu in a restaurant for wimps.”

“Satyr and the Faun” unfurls in the truest sense of the word. The song practically blossoms. After the spare first verse, which features Martin’s voice and a framing piano, a larger sonic landscape sets forth. Strings, drums, and synths build a wide vista, and I lose myself in its vision. Although the song’s metaphor revolves around relationships, I’ve been applying it to locations. Toronto has been a dream, in the sense of being out of reach, for longer than I care to remember. Decades at this point. That’s an extensive period of time to spend contracting yourself to fit a city, state, or country where you feel like a smaller and more diluted version.

This time, running—a penchant I’ve written about before—doesn’t feel like fleeing. It feels like recognizing your path and your worth, and—at last, at long last—pursuing a future where you will only ever be gloriously yourself. “And so I have to run, to run, to run.”