The Microphone's The Glow: Part 2
has the lightest touch, but
there's so much in it, from the audio power of post-rock to the
humanity of acoustic folk, all mixed together like swirled ice cream
(not blended!). You get a bite of one flavor and that segues into the
taste of another, and they all linger on your tongue or at
least you want them to.
The album is echo-y, floating in and out. It's gentle and gently
strummy, soft. Some parts have a nice gritty fuzz layer under which
all that pretty stuff is going on. Others are clanging, angry. It's
indie pop-rock from the Pacific Northwest, Puget Sound-inspired. Not
surprising, then, that it's evocative of how rain looks.
K Records' Web site
Microphones' 67-minute, 20-song opus was recorded "with studio
sleepovers and big meals by the organ." A group effort among musician
friends, it's drawn comparisons to Elephant 6 out of Athens, Ga. It's
Phil Elvrum's vision, but it took friends collaborating to make it
happen. A producer with a strong reputation at Calvin Johnson's Dub
Narcotic studio in Olympia, Wash., Elvrum's also a member of Old Time
Relijun. He uses the studio as an instrument, and it's where he
But it's not where he gets his ideas. For Glow,
from the natural environment. Before I examined the cover art or
listened to the lyrics, the album's sound brought to mind clouds and
forests, which turns out to be a common perception among listeners I
know. Elvrum wanted the project to musically illustrate the natural
setting of his hometown, Anacortes, Wash., in the San Juan Islands of
Puget Sound, known for their beauty.
is part sonic pitter-patter and part sonic roar. An
acoustic tremble, it tiptoes delicately, then hurls itself with
fire-breathing agony in post-rock bursts. Melody is counterposed with
dissonance, quiet with loud, acoustic with electronic and treated.
Melodic bars repeat and vary, weaving in and out, unifying an
underlying self-reflective consciousness Narcissus gazing in
the pool? According to Dub Narcotic, tracks are strung
together by a bass guitar masquerading as sound recorded from a
combination of Anacortes tugboats and ferries. Although it sounds as
if they merely link tracks, they form an under-layer that runs the
length of the album.
I think of the lyrics as a libretto. The story begins in September
with a death wish the intense desire to sublimate into nature,
of wanting to be free of skin. In "I Want Wind to Blow My 'Clothes'
off Me," Elvrum sings "I want wind to blow my brains out." Elvrum gets
almost a harp sound out of double-tracked acoustic guitars (a sound
that comes up again, as in track 13, "You'll Be in the Air," and 18,
"I Felt Your Shape"). Pounding on a hollow drum creates a metronomic
rhythm. The pounding grows more pronounced; a layer of distortion
smothers melody and beat, then ebbs, and we're back to acoustic. It's
a trip! A cut to silence in the middle of a bar abruptly ends Song 1
Song 2 crashes through that silence, rearing a snarling
post-rock-with-emo-overtones head, building on the last song's
melody. The protagonist seems to have evaporated into the natural
environment. No such luck. He hovers over his body, recognizing the
life that won't ebb. Sings Elvrum with anguish, "I faced 'death' I
went in with my arms swinging but in there I heard my own breath and
had to face 'I'm still living.'" Like someone waking from an overdose
with a "Goddamn, it didn't work!," the protagonist is shocked to find
"I'm still flesh. I hold on to awful feelings. I'm not dead. There's
no end. My face is red with my blood, flows harshly. My heart beats
deafeningly. My chest still draws breath." Voila the album's
title track, "Glow: Part 2."
From here, the protagonist travels a vast emotional tundra to
humility, working through narcissism ("I Felt My Size"), and toward
acceptance ("I Felt Your Shape"), even if that involves a (romantic)
loss so painful it could drive you to off yourself. Glow
manages to play both sides of the street it's a break up
album of operatic scale and poignancy as well as in a pop "She's Got a
Ticket to Ride" sense quite a feat.
It's ambiguous, though maybe she died.
I keep thinking I hear Velvet Underground-y sounds coming through,
but it's hard to pin down. Finding the perfect match has been a wild
goose chase. Yet there's a vague aural memory that comes across in
the vocals, especially when a second vocalist, male or female, joins
Elvrum. It's those jagged not-quite harmonies that remind me of Cale
and Reed. Also, the female vocals sound like Moe Tucker sweet,
off-kilter, used sparingly. VU is an originator of
melody-to-dissonance and acoustic-to-electronic, so sonically there's
that. Thematically, there's that pretty ontological self-questioning,
fun on the order of Camus and "The Plague" or Sartre and "Nausea."
("Uncle! I promise! I'll be your mirror!")
I really like how the album moves from post-rock instrumentals to
delicate little folk songs in Elvrum's heartrending voice. The sad
and lovely little songs pop up within the storm of post-rock. They go
beyond folk because they're experimental, so you can't quite think of
them as "just" singer/songwriter even if they're "just" that. A
perfect example is "I Felt Your Shape," in which the protagonist
recognizes he's been holding on to a ghost, however tactile: "But
last night on your birthday in the kitchen my grip was loose, my eyes
were open. I felt your shape and heard you breathing. I felt the rise
and fall of your chest. I felt your fall, your winter snows, your
gusty blow, your lava flow. I felt it all: your starry night and your
lack of light, With limp arms I can feel most of you." It's
impossibly beautiful, this song. It really could be a sweet, dark
little Moe Tucker song. Sadness, yearning, passion, ardor, heartbreak
it's all there, just the way a comforting acoustic song should
be. Following is the hard, noisy fuzz of Song 19, "Samurai Sword,"
like an explosion of pent-up male fury.
And those comparisons to Elephant 6? Beyond production methods, a
band like Neutral Milk Hotel shares with The Microphones a freer,
looser song construction, ranging from hooky moments to hooky moments
asphyxiated in fuzz, to spaced-out fuzz, to noise. But, while Neutral
Milk draw on social and historical themes like wasted youth, family
violence and the Holocaust, The Microphones are about something very
different. On Glow,
what you get is an exploration of the full
range of masculine subjectivity, from fragility to rage to gentility.
It's a beautiful trip and you can't help but be touched by Elvrum's
I spoke with someone at Dub Narcotic studio who told me over the
phone that the album ends with ambient sound an analog
recording of Elvrum's own heartbeat. I put on my headphones and
listened and it was true, and I heard the heart beating as one.