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Essential Listening: The Microphones 

The Microphones’ works are the early musical endeavours of singer-songwriter Phil Elverum, who throughout his 22-year career has carved his face forever into the Mount Rushmore of the alt rock scene. His blend of indie folk, noise and garage sounds have placed him alongside other greats of this alternative subculture that sprang up during the 90s, such as Wilco, Neutral Milk Hotel and Death Cab For Cutie. Their powerful multi-instrumental albums evoke powerful emotions through dynamic sounds and insightful lyrics.

From the earliest point in their career, The Microphones built their sound around a blend of dissonance and melancholy, using distorted organs, guitars and blown out drums to “create eternity”, as Phil Elverum reminisces in the retrospective album The Microphones In 2020

Their debut album, Don’t Wake Me Up, is a noisy, lofi excursion of an artist clearly trying to separate themselves from their influences. While this raw, dynamic outing was an impressive first attempt, it was quickly outdone as Elverum found his true voice on their sophomore record It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water. Here, the acoustic folk influences are carefully blended with more experimental deployments of repetition and distortion, complimented by a more significant forefronting of Elverum’s formidable lyrical talent. 

Additionally, Elverum manages to create a sense of opposition within tracks that provides for a uniquely chaotic and overwhelming experience; tracks like opener ‘The Pull’ begin as acoustic skipping folk songs, becoming blown out chaos, moving at three times the pace as it progresses, before ending as nearly ambient noise.

With this retrospective release, and such a large and expressive back catalogue to explore, a new window has opened up to enjoy the magic of The Microphones

Part of the charm of The Microphones’ music is its intangible authenticity, which can equally be attributed to the fantastically sparse and raw quality of the recordings, and Elverum’s dedication to writing music formed from his own experiences. A core part of his musical identity, both in past and present, has been his formative years spent on Heart Lake Road in the shadows of Mount Eerie, Washington – these locations repeatedly appear within lyrics, song titles and album names. The song ‘Heart Lake Rd.’ on the band’s third studio album, Windows, is one of the most understated songs they ever released. Its heartachingly nostalgic sound and lyrics are enough to stir even the coldest soul.

The band’s most revered album is 2001’s The Glow Pt.2, and with good reason: it centres around the experiences and emotions of a painful break up, but manages to expand this commonly explored concept into such an abstract exploration of pain and hope that it is hard not to be entirely swept away. 

Musically, it strikes a perfect balance between infectious riffs that nestle into every corner of your being and untethered raw power expressed through distortion and noise. The perfect example of this comes in the transition between the understated and repeating outro of opener ‘I Want Wind to Blow’ and the thrashing, malevolent sounds that bring in the title track, ‘The Glow pt.2’. 

Elverum is also on top lyrical form, combining the mundane with the existential to great effect, exemplified in ‘Headless Horseman’, a low-key moment that compares the pain of returning to his ex’s house to retrieve his possessions with the feeling of a “trip to hell”, having “soft hands replaced by claws” and “clinging to rocks and wind”.

The Microphones continued producing music for 2 more years after The Glow Pt.2, before Elverum abandoned the moniker in favour of Mount Eerie, where he continues to produce emotionally resonating alt-rock – such as A Crow Looked At Me, an album detailing the void left in his everyday life by the death of his wife. 

However, Elverum’s most recent outing is a return to The Microphones name, with the release of The Microphones in 2020. The album is a near continuous 45 minute audio visual project detailing his early experiences in music-making and the feeling of empowerment this brought, alongside photos of and by Elverum showing the landscape and equipment that accompanied his musical development. With this retrospective release, and such a large and expressive back catalogue to explore, a new window has opened up to enjoy the magic of The Microphones.

 

 

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