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Song Islands

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Album Review

As prolific as they are creative, the Microphones have released a surprisingly large amount of singles and albums for a group that has only been recording since 1998. Song Islands gathers most of their singles and EPs, including hard-to-find releases on tiny labels like Coming in Second and Instatone Brand, and proves that even at the beginning, the group's approach was firmly in place. Early works like "Bass Drum Dream" and "Where It's Hotter Pts. 1, 2 & E" feature the powerful, distorted drums, strummy acoustic guitars, droning keyboards, and pretty, naive vocals that define the Microphones' sound. Still, even though they're not presented in strictly chronological order, the tracks on Song Islands do trace the band's evolution: songs like "Feedback (Life, Love, Loop)," "Weird Storm," and "Deeply Buried" are wrapped in more noisy preambles and tangents than some of the group's more recent material. The album is also fairly egalitarian when it comes to representing all of the band's different sounds, providing just as many sonic freakouts as gentle ballads. "Heavy Eyes" and "Wake Me Up" lean toward the former, while "The Moon" and "I Lost My Wind" emblematize the latter. The bizarre country and gospel-tinged singalongs "I Can't Believe You Actually Died" and "I'm a Pearl Diver" take yet another musical detour; likewise, the many alternate versions of songs that ended up on the Microphones' K albums prove that for this group, it's all about the journey, and not the destination. Two early versions of "The Moon," one of the best songs on The Glow, Pt. 2, are included here; one emphasizing the bittersweet, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and melody, the other featuring the galloping instrumentation that ended up on the album rendition. "The Glow, Pt. 4" offers a slightly cleaner, simpler version of the song that graced "It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water," while the folky, conversational "Phil Elvrum's Will" incorporates bits of The Glow, Pt. 2's "I Want Wind to Blow." Song Islands completes the journey by including 2002's singles "Lanterns" and "Antlers," and it marks another striking leap forward for Phil Elvrum and company. With its shuffling, stuttering beats, "Lanterns" could almost be considered lo-fi electronica, and the subtle guitars, static bursts, and solemn vocals make it one of the Microphones' most polished works yet, though it's no less affecting because of that. "Antlers," a subdued, impressionistic collage of vocals, piano, and guitar, sounds more like a typical Microphones effort, but it still showcases Elvrum's growth as a producer, songwriter, and singer. From their rawest work to their most refined, Song Islands does an able job of cataloging the Microphones' creative energies in a relatively unedited fashion. It's a willfully indulgent, often meandering collection, which may make it frustrating to anyone unfamiliar with the band, but it's precisely these qualities that make it an accurate and compelling portrait of the Microphones.


Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '90s, '00s

The Microphones was the alias of Anacortes, WA-based lo-fi psych-pop mastermind Phil Elvrum, also known for his work as a member of K Records bands D+ and Old Time Relijun. Following a series of cassettes on the local Knw-Yr-Own label, including Wires and Cords, Tests, and a self-titled effort, the Microphones issued their first full-length effort, also titled Tests, on the Elsinor label in the autumn 1999. Don't Wake Me Up appeared on K the next summer, followed in 2000 by Window and It Was Hot...
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