If Phil Elvrum proclaimed himself the son of God it is quite possible that thousands of Microphones fans would believe his claim and follow him blindly into the promised land through the Northwest Passage. After the release of masterfully produced post folk masterpieces like It Was Hot We Stayed In The Water and Glow Pt. 2 it is easy to see why Elvrum, when functioning under the Microphones nom de guerre, inspires such niche loyalty. His compositions use a mixture of baring honesty and mystical imagery, which are coated in layers of studio wizardry that can make for an intoxicating headphone experience.
If there has been a chink in his armor it has been the inconsistency of the vocal delivery on these album. With the use of sound textures and machines Elvrum has been able to mask this weakness on his studio albums. On Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003, which is purported to be the final release under the Microphones moniker before recasting himself after his last album Mt. Eerie, Elvrum steps to the plate to take on his critics by shedding the studio trappings and baring his voice and guitar work for all to bear witness. While it is easy to become enamored with this brazen attempt to swing for the wall one thing is evident, when backed by strong compositions Elvrum’s off key warble sounds fragile and heart warming, but when singing on covers or weaker songs he sounds like a cast-off from an American Idol worst audition special.
The most cringe-worthy moments on this live recording are the song snippets of popular classics “My Favorite Thing” and “Silent Night”. Running under one minute apiece, these takes feature Elvrum crooning like a broken-voiced Bobby Brady over gentle acoustic guitar. Even more unsettling than the actual performances is the idea that these were some of the best songs captured over the three nights represented on this album. That fact alone may be the most puzzling.
It would be simple to get trapped in the mire of these awful tracks, but that would be unfair to an album that diverges from the traditional “greatest hits” format. Instead of following that formula, Elvrum dared to be daring and recorded a batch of previously unreleased songs. The first two tracks are trademark Microphones and demonstrate Elvrum reaching a new plateau as a roving songsmith. “Great Ghosts” is a heart-tugging ballad featuring Elvrum solo on vocals and acoustic guitar winding his way through a tale about the supernatural and the subconscious. This track is without question on part with the finest songs from It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water. Also noteworthy is “The Blow Pt. 2” which is an open nod to the album title Glow Pt. 2, which was a nod to the song “The Glow” from It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water. The song mixes the traditional Microphones maudlin theatrics with a mix jumping acoustic guitar line that bounces like a 1950s sock hop. The melody builds to a magnificent crescendo that is only marred by Elvrum losing the note as his voice jumps to a wail. Although it is not a perfect track, “The Blow Pt. 2” is possibly the best document of the Microphones strengths and weaknesses. It features an excellent song concept bolstered by strong emotions and dynamics, that are ultimately limited only by the vocal ability of Elvrum.
While Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003 is a mixed bag of new material there is no question that this record will be a must have for the legions of Microphones fanatics. For the casual listener or someone new to the Microphones, Glow Pt. 2 would be a better starting point. The lack of production, the disjointed feel of unrehearsed material and the general dissonance of Elvrum’s vocals can make certain tracks an uncomfortable listening experience. With a hollow eulogy for the Microphones, one can only hope that Elvrum’s next endeavor as Mt. Eerie will learn from these mistakes.