The Microphones – The Glow, Pt. 2

The Microphones
The Glow, Pt. 2

If history has taught us anything (and it hasn’t taught us much), it has shown that the most relevant musicians are usually those that continually push themselves to reach greater artistic heights and never fall into predictability. Somehow, the greats manage to combine disparate elements and yet emerge with a style that is coherent enough to be all their own. And while it’s nice to hear a band, such as the White Stripes, that can be relied on for a singular vision and consistently exceptional, if not altogether groundbreaking, musical product, it’s the innovators that history usually remembers. As there is really no predicting who will write the next chapter in rock’s development, new candidates always appear who seem to want to put their claim on the next few pages. With The Glow, Pt. 2, the follow-up to last year’s critically lauded It Was Hot, We Stayed In the Water, it appears that a new claimant has pushed to the front of the line.
Not to give the impression that Phil Elvrum and his increasingly diminished pool of collaborators are undertaking a rock and roll revolution all by themselves, but his combination of lo-fi production and sophisticated arrangements, his use of alternately soothing and wildly bombastic textures, and the seemingly vast number of sounds he can create without the use of complex electronics are the point/counterpoint that makes for innovational genius. No doubt, you’ve heard elements of everything here somewhere before, yet they’re presented here in such new and creative ways that the final product is unique unto itself. In short, you never know what’s coming next, but when it arrives, it seems like it belongs.
Immediately, the most striking element of Elvrum’s songcraft is the strangely organic, almost tangible, texture of everything he does. Far too often music that takes an experimental route such as this can come across as somewhat distant or cold, but those adjectives never apply here. How much of that has to do with the lo-fi recording technology is unknown, but the occasional hiss of static seems to fit with the dominant aesthetic. The percussion always feels like it’s coming from some indefinable place, almost as if you’re sitting on it or it’s emanating from your chest. The opening “I Want Wind to Blow” provides a fine example, with acoustic guitar strums laid over leaden thumping, soon to be buried in a soaring accumulation of acoustic textures. Using a decidedly cosmopolitan approach, everything from horns to steel drums turn up at some point, all adding another shade to an album that possess an extraordinary range of colors. As these colors interact, a theme begins to turn up, with Elvrum’s songs often spending a certain amount of time building up for an austere breaking loose in a sprawling run for some unknown finish line.
Obviously, that’s not to imply that there is some formula at work here, as no two songs progress in the same way, and while most seem to be composed in a more or less linear fashion, they also seem to be comprised of multiple ideas. Often, the disparate elements don’t seem to be completely in sync with each other. The opening guitars of the title track strum and scratch at rhythms that aren’t quite uniform enough to line up together, and as more instruments are introduced, seemingly more rhythmic variance enters as well. Still, never to get bogged down in one particular end of the musical color spectrum, the chaotic mass of marching scrambled hums and eerie voices on “Map” and the swirling fractured guitars amped beyond recognition on “Samurai Sword” rain down dissonance in a more immediate release of the pent up tension that seems to constantly flow under the surface. Generally, these moments are bookended by a calming down, temporarily bottling up in subdued piano ballads or haunting sound collage.
Certainly, that tension runs through the songwriting to a large extent. To focus purely on the sonic complexities of the Microphones work would be to miss out entirely on Elvrum as a lyricist, as he combines a somewhat nonchalant Lou Reed-by-way-of-Stephen Malkmus-delivery with often evocative and emotive metaphor. With lines like “I’m not dead / There’s no end / My face is red / My blood flows harshly,” it’s not hard to imagine the erstwhile Jeff Mangum sitting with pen and paper. Clever and descriptive, calling on frequent nature images, the songwriting earns extra points for being largely free of any variety of misplaced commercial angst or fashionable displacement.
So, even if Elvrum isn’t creating an entirely new aural experience, the way he rearranges familiar elements is so exceptional as to be largely different from most anything in contemporary indie rock. As his sound continually evolves and his vision grows more and more complex, he has also managed to sharpen his focus and cut through limits that could have been imposed through complacency. Not simply a triumph in concept, but in construction, these songs challenge the listener and offer rewards in tune, lyric, and production that resonate long after the last track stops spinning. This may be the Microphones’ first genuine epic, but it’s certainly not their last.