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The Microphones
The Glow: Part 2

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 notes The 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 writes.

But it's not where he gets his ideas. For Glow,those came 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.

Glow 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 — bang!

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 thus 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 accomplishment.

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.

by Jillian Steinberger

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