K Records has reissued the Microphones' stunning 2001 album, and it's no surprise it still astounds today.
Real independent artists -- the ones who have "cult followings", whose connection with their art is fragile as their hold on life -- are few in this time of many links. The prototype, of course, is Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum. But Phil Elvrum, best known for his work with Mount Eerie and the Microphones, must be close behind. Elvrum has grown into the hermetic artist role over the past 10 years or so, through escaping not only into the remoteness of the forests outside Anacortes, Washington but also farther afield, to Norway for a winter in 2002-2003. At the same time, there has been a steady, almost prolific output from various Elvrum-associated projects over the years, from limited edition Microphones singles to Mount Eerie CDs packaged in hand-wrapped parcels to photo books with accompanying picture discs. The intention was to make each something of a collector's piece, and there's surely a demand for such items.
Much of the music coming out of K Records and the Anacortes scene – Karl Blau's varied experimental folk, Little Wings' haunted surf ballads – shares an obvious intimate quality. Elvrum has often helped these friends musically, acting as a producer and performer for a number of other K Records albums. But what makes Elvrum's own music different is its willingness to jump out of the constrictions of organic acoustic folk for a more realistic depiction of its creator's fractured experience. This music feels both full of space and curiously personal; both concerned with subversion of the music's adopted forms and celebratory of simple pop melody. The buried, unusual structures and unravelling forms make it a pleasure to abandon yourself to as a listener, and justify the collector status its creator has manufactured for it.
Of all of Elvrum's wide-ranging musical output so far, The Glow, Pt. 2 is his most complete statement. If it seems early to be reminiscing about a 2001 album, it's only because for many of those originally captured by it, the album has continued to be a treasured companion. And then there are those of us who came to it late: I was only acquainted by a friend of mine in 2004. Still, these songs stand up to the scrutiny of re-evaluation. Elvrum's home-recorded, too-close-to-the-microphone bedroom recording style is more sophisticated than it sounds on first blush, whether it's the easy blooming-into-noise of album centrepiece "The Glow, Pt. 2" or the "weird and lasting sadness" of "The Mansion". That static song's perfect encapsulation of distant rainclouds remains: strange and compelling, like all of Elvrum's music. The construction of the album, with a series of shorter songs towards the disc's end (until "My Warm Blood", of course), implies that there are too many ideas to be contained on one volume. But the plethora of material and variety of musical styles never seem superfluous. When "I Felt My Size" grows from near silence to perhaps the album's only real singalong moment, it is stated just once and not repeated: the aural reflection is built into the ambient buzz at song's end. It's just a small example (one of many) of how Elvrum manufactures songs that transcend the sum of their parts.
The obligatory bonus disc is entitled Other Songs & Destroyed Versions, but it doesn't just contain relics from the time in the studio that produced the earlier album. Instead, it has Elvrum returning to the older material, reinterpreting a number of songs and providing a tantalising snippet or two of new material. The version of "I Want the Wind to Blow" is particularly interesting, cut through with an off-putting dial-noise and a reordered progression that emphasises the lost-at-sea feeling of the song. Despite the fact that these versions seem more sketches than the intricately-plotted originals, they're a testament to the music as a living, breathing thing. The material at times takes on the joyful cacophony of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. This conception of Elvrum's art has it reinterpretable and for this, all the more powerful. For this reason Microphones fans will find Other Songs & Destroyed Versions more than worth the investment.
So is this a perfect album?
It's not, but it's perhaps all you could ask for from where The Glow, Pt. 2 is coming. It's architecturally stunning on the large scale – careening from silence to squally noise to bouncing headphone-oriented stereo moments to odd, reeling pop-waltzes in a glorious depiction of all of nature's fickle, freckled life. And in its small, intimate inflections it also glows with an incredible vitality. This is surely an album to discover, or to discover again; to treasure; to grow to finally fully understand; and to share with your friends, as it was shared with me.