Michael Franti, leader of the progressive hip-hop band Spearhead, once described a previous band of his as being “kind of like broccoli”, in that sense that people liked the band because they thought it was good for them, not because it grabbed their hearts and souls.
Which, I’ve decided, is kind of how I feel about the Microphones.
The Microphones, a celebrated turn-of-the-millennium low-fi band, was the brainchild of Phil Elverum, a musician and producer who emerged from the fertile musical soil of Olympia, Washington. Four Microphones albums and a singles compilation came out on the venerable K label from 1999 to 2003; after that, Elverum shifted gears a bit and started recording under the name Mount Eerie. Throughout this year, Elverum has reissued all of the Microphones albums on his own label in remastered vinyl sets, including the most acclaimed one, The Glow, Pt. 2, originally released in 2001.
Like much of Elverum’s work, The Glow, Pt. 2 is complex, intimate, meandering, occasionally beautiful and often frustrating as hell. It’s a record that has to be listened to on headphones so you can hear Elverum’s studio wizardry, the way he layers elements together in a track, the way he envelops the listener in a gentle but vibrant swirl of sound. For all the technical genius on display, though, I don’t find myself moved by these songs. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. First, while I’m not a strict verse-chorus-verse guy, I do get frustrated by the way so many of these tracks just seem to wander. They feel less like compositions and more like the unfinished noodlings of a guy messing around with a guitar in his bedroom. I’m also put off a bit by Elverum’s singing and lyrics. His murmured vocals rarely sell the grand emotions—Love, Fear, Despair—that come up over and over here. One of his most forceful vocal performances occurs in the title track, but it’s undercut by the banality of his words: “I’m not dead/ There’s no end / My face is red / My blood…flows harshly.”
And yet, it must be said that there are moments on The Glow, Pt. 2 when an unexpected musical flourish hits you right in the face and makes you smile. Like the multi-tracked acoustic-guitar strumming that opens “The Moon”, and the way that horns float into the song a bit later on. Or the beautiful piano that shimmers in stereo on “My Roots Are Strong and Deep”. Or the guitar that ping-pongs from ear to ear on “instrumental”, then gives way to gorgeous piano and thundering drums. Here is where you see just how talented Elverum is as a writer and arranger of music. I just wish he had hung these moments on a sturdier frame.
The Glow, Pt. 2 was the Microphones’ third full-length, and for many fans and critics, it’s the record where everything went right. They are sure to rejoice at this reissue, which spreads the 20-song opus over two vinyl LPs. As for me, I’ll continue to appreciate Elverum’s work from afar—admiring it, yes, but not really loving it.