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Music CD Recommendations

Spotlight on: Live in Japan February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003 by "The Microphones"
Alternate Recommendation: D+ by D+

Cover of The Microphones Live in Japan "The Microphones," Live in Japan February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003

I can hear the questions now coming from Microphones fans all over the world: "Didn't Phil change the name of the band to Mount Eerie?" Technically, yes. Following the release of the Mount Eerie album, Phil Elverum announced that he was no longer going to record under the name of the Microphones, preferring instead to adopt the name of that album. However (or so I read) he did not want the first recording under the new name to be a live CD and since, when Live in Japan was recorded, he was still calling the entity by that name, he left it alone for this album. This explains the quotes around "The Microphones." Got it? Good.

Now that we're past all that...If you only know the music of the Microphones from the albums, you're in for a surprise. There is no previously recorded music on this album; unlike most live CDs, this is not simply a rehash of his other work. After recording Mount Eerie, Elverum took some time off and went to Norway (near the town of Elverum, thus precipitating the change in spelling of his surname), where he apparently became very inspired and wrote dozens of songs. When he subsequently went on tour, he took all this new music on the road with him. One example, the minimalist "Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano" (also the name of a prior incarnation of Khaela Maricich's The Blow), appears exclusively on the Invisible Shield compilation and is not included on Live in Japan. But if you've heard that, it is a shining example of the kind of music that appears on this CD.

Elverum begins with what is possibly the best song on the album, "Great Ghosts." It's a moody exploration of the northern regions and their great history. Then, showing that he has a sense of humor about himself, the next song is entitled "The Blow, Pt. 2," which not only recalls his breakthrough 2001 album, The Glow, Pt. 2, but also continues his practice of naming songs after Khaela Maricich's various band names. At the end, he also caused me to hearken back to an older song "I Want My Wind to Blow" as he wails those words at the end of the song.

Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening) and Kyle Field (Little Wings) appear on two songs: "Universe Conclusion" -- which, by its title and epic 11-minute length, sounds as if it might have been an outtake from the Mount Eerie album, but contains something very different and moving as Johnson and Field drone a call-and-response "We know there are" to everything Elverum tells them; and "I love you so much!" where their contribution includes asking the musical question "What do you love?" Johnson, Field, and Elverum all have fantastic, distinctive voices and I've never heard them blended before. It's a mind-opening experience. It must have really been something to have been sitting in the audience and seeing three musical geniuses on the same stage.

Really, the whole album carries that kind of wonder with it. When Phil does seemingly spontaneous riffs on the Christmas classics "My Favorite Things" and "Silent Night," it's easy to imagine that he has found lost verses of these songs, they suit the music so well. (Perhaps we'll get a Christmas album from Elverum one of these days? I'd certainly pick that up.) And "Thanksgiving" is probably one of the best songs Phil has written lately. I wasn't able to realize this until I heard the version he performs on Jason Anderson's album New England, with Anderson singing the counterpoint, and that recording may be superior simply due to its less improvisatory air, but this description of his continuing love affair with the moon--and his own attempts to talk sense to himself--improves with each listen.

As fans wait for the upcoming Mount Eerie "debut," this couldn't be a better tideover. All new material, an intimate venue with surprisingly excellent sound quality, and an evening (or three) spent with the final days of the Microphones with special guests. Altogether a marvelous experience.

Alternate Recommendation: D+, D+

If you're a fan of the Microphones, you can thank Bret Lunsford. After working for years in Beat Happening with Calvin Johnson and Heather Lewis, Lunsford was ready for his own time in the spotlight. So, with bassist Karl Blau and an unknown drummer from Anacortes called Phil Elvrum, he formed D+. This was Elvrum's first introduction to K Records (D+ is a co-release between K and Lunsford's own Knw-Yr-Own Records) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Which is not to give short shrift to the work of D+. After all, they're still recording (their latest album, Deception Pass, just came out in 2003), so they must be doing something right. In Beat Happening, his contributions were often overshadowed by the forceful voice and personality of Calvin Johnson (owner of K Records, and an indie rock legend) to Lunsford's detriment. D+ is the perfect showcase for Lunsford's minimalist indie rock style.

Their debut album, simply entitled D+, contains the classic ode to home movie film stock, "Super 8" (when I became a Microphones fan and was researching the history of Phil, I came across this song as a download and it has never left my mix CD rotation) in addition to other great songs like "Heatherwood," "Jaywalker," and the a capella "Sing Me to Sleep." Lunsford's quirky, introspective lyrical style and sincere vocals blend perfectly with Blau's simple bass and harmony vocals and Elvrum's often feverish drumming (which, as a drummer, was the first thing I really appreciated about Elvrum) to create a band unlike any you've heard before, yet somehow strangely familiar.

After the wonderful "Wrinkle," which is a perfect introduction to the band's style, comes "Super 8" and then "Silent Spring"--special in its own right for its changing tempos. Other highlights are "TSOL" with its chorus of "who gave the power to the powers that be?" and the Bronwyn Holm duet "Cotton Candy."

This is a really solid album, but I would recommend D+ in small-to-medium-sized doses because after about six songs or so, the similarity in styles fails to make a real impression, and this is music that needs to be paid attention, both for its place in history and its accessibility. It sounds like an album your friends made, if your friends were involved in the pinnacle of indie rock.

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