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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
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The Microphones
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Song Islands
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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.


by Jillian Steinberger




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