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Spotlight on: The Microphones
Featuring reviews of the following albums:
The Glow, Pt.2
It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water
Live in Japan, February 19th 21st and 22nd 2003
Mount Eerie
Song Islands

Note: Links on this page open in a new window. There are a lot of them and I don't want you to get lost.
The Glow Pt. 2 by The Microphones The Microphones, The Glow, Pt. 2

If you've been on Amazon.com very often, you'll be familiar with the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought These" section on each page. Well, chalk another one up for them. They introduced me to this month's CD: The Glow, Pt. 2 by The Microphones. (Also available on double LP, for the vinylly inclined.)

I was looking through their selection of Beck albums, when I noticed this title as a selection listed below. At first, I was intrigued by someone titling an album "Part 2," but as I read more about it, first in the customer reviews, then on Pitchfork Media, and various other places, I realized that The Glow, Pt. 2 was an album I had to own.

But first, I wanted to try them out just to make sure. Amazon had several mp3s available by the band, as did K Records (the album's label), each on the respective album's page. I also did a search for "Microphones mp3s" on Google and found several more on a website I'd never heard of called Epitonic (but which I now visit often). Within all these, I eventually found about a dozen, certainly enough for a good sampling. Unfortunately, on my dial-up connection, it took me about a week to download them all. Before I was finished, though, I knew I had to have this album, as well as just about everything this guy (Phil Elvrum is the Microphones) had been involved with. His other bands are Old Time Relijun [Elvrum is no longer with OTR, but his work can be found on their previous albums--ed.] and D+, where he plays awesome percussion. He is also a producer for other K recording artists--Mirah, in particular. (Amazing the things you can find on the web.)

With these mp3s (plus the ones from Old Time Relijun, Mirah, and D+), and my trusty CD writer, I was able to be satisfied until the extra cash came around to actually purchase the album. Skip ahead a week or so. I decided that, instead of buying from Amazon, I was going to give my money directly to the record company and order from their site (that it was cheaper there played a large part in my decision, but I can be pretty darn pretentious sometimes).

The Glow, Pt. 2 has been described as a lo-fi (meaning nothing computerized was used) masterpiece, and I agree, having had the opportunity to listen to it numerous times since the day it arrived in the mail (in that perfectly unassuming Media Mail package). It's definitely a concept album and all the songs flow together wonderfully. Also, it was made for listening with headphones. The sonic depth is amazing. It sometimes feels as if the music enters through your ears and swims around inside you for a while, not quite able to find an escape route, but content to while away the intervening time.

Elvrum is not afraid of experimentation, either. Each song has its own distinctive sound. The dual acoustic-guitar sound at the front of "The Moon" has to be heard to be believed. (For the origin of that sound, listen to "The Pull"--from It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water--as well.) His creativity will always surprise you. What seems at first like noise, after a few listens unfolds itself like a blooming bud to show you all its layers. You then come to appreciate the imagination--one would almost say "genius"--involved in this recording.

But even such a personal record cannot be done alone--not and remain faithful to its analog roots. Several of Elvrum's friends (other K recording artists) stop by to help out. Most noticeable is the angelic voice of Mirah on a couple of tracks. I have become a Mirah fan--particularly "Cold Cold Water"--from her album Advisory Committee--through my research on this album. I have, in fact, become rather more well-versed than I had expected in the music coming out of Olympia, Washington, the home of K (and the state capital, in case you didn't know).

Sort of an Easter Egg: Make sure to listen for the tugboat sounds played underneath throughout the album (very clear during the quiet spots). It's the sonic thread that connects everything.

(Note: Interestingly, Beck released an album, One Foot in the Grave, on K Records as part of his atypical contract with Geffen [he is allowed to release records Geffen deems non-commercial on smaller labels]. Which, now that I think of it, is probably why the connection was made by Amazon in the first place.)

It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water by the Microphones The Microphones, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water

After hearing The Glow, Pt. 2, I was most interested in pursuing this band called the Microphones. My next step, as I saw it, was to move backwards and purchase their previous album, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. (Ironically, the title comes the song "Where It's Hotter Part 3," which does not appear on this album).

This was a monumental purchase. It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water is almost as good an album as The Glow, Pt.2. It's infinitely more accessible, with songs like "The Pull" and a cover of the Eric's Trip song, "Sand" gently introducing newer listener to the quirky experimental style of Phil Elvrum, the "band's" only static member.

The centerpiece is an eleven-minute song entitled "The Glow," which is one of the best experimental pieces I've heard in a long time. It goes from a mild voice with acoustic guitar ("The glow came down from the hills"), continues into a nearly-dissonant chorus with organ, back to the guitar-voice combo, then the creepily angelic voice of Mirah ("Hey, wake up, it's me, the glow"). Then, with a sudden crash, it becomes a rock song ("I started to glow"), complete with "woo-woo" backup singing, before eventually fading out into shadows and whispers. But it's even more than that, what with all the layering of instruments and voices. "The Glow" is definitely the highlight of an already great album and is alone worth purchasing It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.

Song Islands by the Microphones The Microphones, Song Islands

I was afraid it would happen, but by this point it was official: I had become a Microphones obsessive. Not just a fan, a fanatic. While perusing the K records website, I found myself wanting everything associated with the Microphones, even non-music stuff like the button, T-shirt, and pennant (sadly, no longer available).

Not that this derides the quality of music found on Song Islands (or Island Songs, if you happen to be the proud owner of a Japanese import copy). While definitely not as cohesive as a full-album effort like The Glow, Pt. 2, or even It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, this collection of various singles released over the years by Elvrum and company is quite charming in its disconnectedness. Unlike the band's albums, this one benefits from "shuffle" play, allowing one to experience each song on its own merits and not as part of a whole. Although, listened to in order (they are arranged chronologically), it allows one to examine the growth and development of one of indie rock's finest performers.

The songs on Song Islands range from the campfire singalong "I Can't Believe You Actually Died" to two separate versions of "The Moon" (officially found on The Glow, Pt. 2) to the next rendition in the Glow series, "The Glow Pt. 4." Released primarily as a appetizer for the mother-of-all concept albums, Mt. Eerie, this career-spanning retrospective was more than enough to satisfy this Microphones fan until the full meal arrived.

Cover image/photo of Mt Eerie by the Microphones The Microphones, Mount Eerie

Anyone who's read down this far on the page knows that I am a huge fan of the Microphones. Ever since I heard their seminal album The Glow Pt. 2, I've been following this band (which is composed mainly of Phil Elvrum, the mind behind it all, and a few of his musically-inclined friends) and their musical ventures into the previously unknown.

I immediately went in pursuit of more of that music. I have since bought the previous album It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, and the singles collection Song Islands (and my reviews of those can be found through the links), and have been consistently impressed with the ideas and musicianship that come from one man's mind and his relationship with the universe. (All the Microphones albums can be seen to have a nature-based thread running throughout them, except the singles collection, which is stunning in itself as a portrait of the tremendous growth Elvrum has experienced since his original flowering.)

After the tremendous success of The Glow Pt. 2 (its original review page is one of the most popular on this site), where was there to go but up...and out. Mount Eerie is the Microphones' musical idea of the universe, from creation to the present--including a stunning visit with Death itself. It is a true concept album and the liner notes themselves tell you everything that can be known without actually hearing the music:

  1. The Sun: In which the story begins, where you are born and run away from death up the mountain in fear and are watched by a ball of fire.
  2. Solar System: In which, in a valley on the way up, the day is ending while you reminisce about a girl gracefully juggling (you as) a planet.
  3. Universe: In which, coming out of the canyon in the dusk, you realize your ball of fire friend has set and doubt creeps in. A big beautiful dark backdrop above asks you intimate questions and sings.
  4. Mt. Eerie: In which, on a precipice, you watch your killer roll up and kill you. Vultures eat your body and fly off, leaving the peak empty and windy again.
  5. Universe: In which, invisible, you realize there's a mountain above the one you just walked up. Also, the Universe painting you'd gazed at before turns out to be a lot bigger than you thought, and 3-D.
Now, that's nothing if not ambitious. And that's the kind of stuff coming out of the independent music scene in Washington state, and that's the kind of stuff you have to be ready for if you're going to listen to the Microphones.

Don't get me wrong, it's melodic and sounds great through headphones. There's all the normal surface that we expect from our music, but there's more. That's all I'm saying.

From the slowly building beginning of the seventeen-minute epic, "The Sun" to the first "Universe," in which several of Phil Elvrum's friends from K Records play various query-posing roles--with Calvin Johnson particularly effective as "the universe's question asker"--to the title track, "Mount Eerie" which contains song snippets written and performed by Karl Blau (as "the birds") and Little Wings' Kyle Field (as "death"), to the final majestic ending of "Universe," Mount Eerie is comparable to nothing else. The album also showcases featured appearances from Mirah, Mikhaela Maricich (The Blow), Adam Forkner ([[[[VVRSSNN]]]], Yume Bitsu), Anna Oxygen, Jenn Kliese, and "the precipice carolers" because, as I said about The Glow, Pt. 2, there's just no way to make something this complex and ambitious without help and have it retain its lo-fi integrity.

Of course, I wouldn't recommend this as a first Microphones purchase. There's enough material here that it may be overwhelming to a new listener. I've listened to it several times already and I don't pretend to fully understand it, but you have to at least get into the Microphones state of mind first. Listen to It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, then go to The Glow Pt. 2, and if you "get" those, you'll be ready for a trip to Mount Eerie.

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 the 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.

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