September 12, 2002

Test Spin: The Microphones

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Phil Elvrum (a.k.a. The Microphones) is no rock star. He records on a four-track. He might not even own a computer. He invites random audience members onto the stage to play his songs with him. He is an everyman. And why? Because he writes songs that sound like we all would if we could turn that excessive introspection and contemplation into music.

Last year’s Glow, Pt. 2 brought him his fair share of critical acclaim. It might be one of the most gut-wrenching album’s since In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (by Neutral Milk Hotel if you are deprived). Song Islands is certainly a telling name, as this is a collection of once scattered songs. The most obvious result of this is manifested in Song Island’s incoherence. It’s trying to make a continent out of Islands, if I may abuse the metaphor.

And yet Song Islands is still more fulfilling than the standard fare. While so many bands are attempting to make a little sound like a lot, Elvrum somehow achieves the opposite. Even when a track includes drums, horns, strings, and what actually sounds like the kitchen sink, it somehow remains simple (and it somehow all fits in his bedroom, where many of his songs are recorded).

Song Islands ranges from lo-fi experimentation akin to the Elephant 6 crew (“Bass Drum Dream”) to sing-alongs (“I Can’t Believe You Actually Died”) to gentle indie-folk that contains only Elvrum’s whispery vocals and acoustic guitar (“Antlers”).

On “Feedback,” Elvrum tinkers with fuzzed-out drums and bass and a vocal sample that resembles an instructional tape about percussion. Then, after about a minute of that, the tune fades into Elvrum’s soft voice and finger-picked guitar. Around minute 2, the song’s namesake takes over. Then back to the quiet folk, then the drums, then feedback… Such is Elvrum’s skill — he is a master of juxtaposition. But he’s still no rock star.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas