The Microphones' Song Islands is a compilation of 21 songs,
including many rarities from scattered seven-inches. As such, it's
not cohesive like 2001's tremulous masterpiece, The Glow: Part
II, a loose concept album that approached the level of opera.
Yet, Song Islands is alternately lovely, interesting and
noisy, and leader Phil Elvrum's play with form is self-reflexive and
appealing, although sometimes obscure. The album will likely be most
enjoyable for Microphones and Elvrum completists.
Elvrum's tender, trembly vocals work like a stirring wake-up call. On
Song Islands, as with previous works, they're sometimes set to
acid post-rock; at others they accompany gentle nylon-stringed guitar
that achieves Elvrum's own signature harp-like timbre. Most songs are
personal, characterized by experimentation upon traditional forms and
themes of romance and nature.
Different sounds and moods range across the compilation. There are
deconstructive, poetic experiments with percussion, like "Bass Drum
Dream" and "Heavy Eyes." "Moon Moon" is a sugar-sweet duet thick with
feedback, while "Wake Me Up" is a jazzy, orchestral jaunt through
feedback. "Deeply Buried" is a contemplative, droning wash with bells.
There are also melodic and pretty yet wonderfully ragged
choral works featuring Olympia, Wash.'s musical lights. These
ingénues include K Records recording artists Mirah, Kaela
Maricich (The Blow), Kyle Field of Little Wings (one of Will Oldham's
top 10 favorite artists) and the Anacortes Knw-Yr-Own label's Karl
Blau (D+, Captain Fathom), as well as K Records founder Calvin
Johnson (Dub Narcotic Sound System, Beat Happening). Such choral
works include the funny, vintage-y "I'm a Pearl Diver," the sexy,
downbeat "Lanterns," the yearning, earnest "I Listen Close," and,
especially, the lovely, the memorable, the sweet "I Can't Believe You
Actually Died," possibly about Elvrum's first musical mentor, his
great-grandmother, who was an original settler of Anacortes and a
music teacher. Another experimental choral moment, innocent and
fresh, is "The Glow: Pt 4."
It's said that Elvrum pulls whoever is at Dub Narcotic into his
studio when he's ready to record. You never know exactly who it's
going to be perhaps it's Jason Anderson of Wolf Colonel, Adam
Forkner of Yume Bitsu, or Dennis Driscoll! He sets up a mic in the
center of the room, briefly teaches his vocalists the song (an
approach he employs during live performances as well), and then
records in analog in one take. With the wide variety of beautiful
and/or textured and/or expressive voices he has to work with, this
recording strategy is a success, and the songs breathe with life,
like organic beings pumped with air.
Some tracks are embryonic forms of songs that made it onto prior
albums, such as "The Moon" on The Glow: Part 2, or "Where It's
Hotter Pts. 1, 2, 3" from The Microphones' first LP, 1999's Don't
Wake Me Up.
It may take a couple listens and some exploration to hear what's
contained in Song Islands. However, it is certainly worth
"island hopping" from song to song and sound to sound. Elvrum is a
unique conceptualist breaking free of old forms, and The Microphones
often achieve a sound that is fresh and free of cliché. While
new listeners may be better off beginning with The Glow: Part
II, Song Islands has its merits and deserves close
listens. Wear headphones.