Usually when anyone uses the word “noise” to describe a band, I nervously clutch my beer and steel myself for the onslaught of what is sure to be avant-garde tripe. As far as the merits of the intentionally unlistenable go, I subscribe to the maxim: I’d rather be dumber and have higher expectations. Fortunately, the “noise” pop of the Microphones has none of the coffee klatch pretension that the moniker evokes. In fact, much of this singles collection is unsettling in its charms.
The Microphones are the crafty ricochet of Phil Elvrum and his well-chosen posse of collaborators. Song Islands is one of those thorns in a collector’s side, whereby their fealty to a band’s every release is dashed by a singles collection that rewards the infidels for their lazy indifference. But if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of owning a Microphones release, then this primer is a god gift of discordant pop gems and plaintive, tugging songcraft.
With 21 tracks to cover, I won’t punish you with a grueling play-by-play. Despite its breadth, most of the songs are cleft between noisier excursions and stripped-down numbers reminiscent of Beat Happening or the Field Mice. When the songs are like “The Moon”, it’s easy to fade out from the music and concentrate on Elvrum’s arresting sense of lyric. On this track, he slowly builds, climb by climb, a swirling scene of intimacy, capturing moments in the smallest detail, like “in your parent’s house I lied in bed with you”. Other tracks in the same vein, like “Antlers”, showcase the gossamer punch of Elvrum’s voice, always on the verge of strain, but oddly more than enough to demand hushed attention.
Much of this music sounds like a soundtrack written for randomly plucked images of loss, naiveté and quiet pleasure. On songs like “Weird Storm” you can almost visualize him using the sounds in the same way that a cinematographer might focus on one point in space and blur to chaos everything in the margins. In fact, the drums and guitar riffs erupt into the song with the emotional gust of a perfectly scored dramatic moment. Not that you’re likely to hear this in the next Sandra Bullock vehicle, but you can almost get caught up in large sweeping soundstrokes that pepper some of the more lush numbers. One of the reasons that even the more experimental tracks are enjoyable is due to the fact that Elvrum seems to use cacophony as an element of music making rather than a coy self-indulgence. On “I Listen Close”, the Animal (of the Muppets) drum bashing, the bug light buzz of keyboard, the skittishly plucked guitar and vocals that sound like a fey cowpoke all seem built around some tightly spooled core of a song. It’s that center that prevents this Microphones record from drifting into dilettantish esoterica.
In interviews, Elvrum cites his upbringing on an island in Puget Sound as one of the touchstones for his work. With that knowledge in hand, it’s easy to hear overcast landscapes and rock-broken white caps in some of his songs. “Deeply Buried” has vocals that sound like some far off foghorn and a clinking sound that brings to mind a harbor full of sloshing buoys. “Moon Moon” is rife with coastline imagery well matched to the tidal sway of his voice. On the Microphones website, you can find some pictures of the artist’s geographic frame of reference and it’s well worth a stop. You can tell from the pictures why some of the songs on Song Islands recede into the horizon or simple wander off into vast expanses of sound.
Few of the tracks fall flat and when they do, I’m left wondering if it’s something I don’t get. It is “noise” pop, after all, so there’s always the risk that there’s some hidden statement that prevents a track from straight-up sucking. Just kidding. Be that as it may, “I Can’t Believe You Actually Died” sounds shockingly silly, especially since it purports to be about losing a close friend. The sing-song chorus sounds like a cross between a jug band and an existentialist Girl Scout troop’s campfire singalong. It reminds me of those songs that big pop stars write with/for their children. They feel about as interesting as looking through baby photos and hearing every gum-numbing toddler anecdote the new parent can blather at you. Hey, that’s what b-sides are for I guess.
Taken as a whole, this collection of singles and miscellany is as much a tribute to beautiful songwriting as it is to innovative sonic sculpture. Rather than the cloying piddling of an “artiste”, Phil Elvrum is a great musician with an unpredictable sense of play. Putting on Song Islands is like discovering a secret passageway in an old house, a small brush with the natural but extraordinary.