Music

The Microphones: Song Islands

Terry Sawyer

The Microphones

Song Islands

Label: K
US Release Date: 2002-08-20
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

With The Perfect Nothing Catalog, composer Conrad Winslow explores attention and arrangement with assistance from the Cadillac Moon Ensemble and Aaron Roche.

The album cover, in a way, tells you everything. It's simple: a cardboard box with two pieces of tape: one from the box's original packing, the other haphazardly slapped on. They imply two separate states–ordering and reordering, original state and redefined context. The Perfect Nothing Catalog, the debut recording from Alaska-born, Brooklyn-based composer Conrad Winslow, invokes this very idea of objects and ideas placed, shuffled, and replaced, provoking questions of how arrangement shapes meaning.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Film

In 'Downsizing' Shrinking Means Big Money and Bigger Problems

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (2017) (Photo by Photo credit: Paramount Pictures - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Being the size of a dog's chew toy might not be to everybody's taste, but it's certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity.

Just imagine you're a character in Alexander Payne's circuitous and occasionally perceptive new comedy Downsizing: You were pre-med, but you dropped out of school to take care of your mother. Now you're an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. You and your wife are treading water both economically and in your relationship. But still, you face every day with just enough gee-whiz optimism that life never quite turns into a grind. But then, something happens. Some Swedish researchers figured out a way to shrink the average human down to a mere five inches tall without any adverse side effects. There are risks to avoid, like not leaving metal fillings in during the shrinking process (exploding heads, you know).

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image