IT WAS A TOUGH choice for which album to review this week. 1991 saw Nevermind, Screamadelica and Blood Sugar Sex Magik all come into the world. Weezer’s seminal sophomore album Pinkerton came out in ’96, while Nick Cave’s Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus came out in 2004, as did Green Day’s American Idiot. But instead, we’re revisiting 2001, and an album not enough people know about.
The Microphones is one of many projects founded by the one and only Phil Elvrum, with a rolling line up which has featured the likes of Karl Blau and Anna Oxygen, amongst others. This project in particular hit its peak in 2001, with the release of its third record, The Glow Pt. 2. It was an album was recognised as the best of the year by Pitchfork, and received sweeping positive reviews across the board. The Glow Pt. 2 is, quite simply, a masterpiece of lo-fi experimentalism. Its near-ambient soundscapes and layered vocals and instrumentation make it not only intricate and full of depth, but, at times, astoundingly beautiful. Elvrum really tapped into something by experimenting with different sounds, positions of the recording equipment and the overall texture of the music.
These textures take many forms. Perhaps the most notable come in the harmonies used in the instrumentation and vocals. As opener ‘I Want The Wind To Blow’ begins with these perfectly placed acoustic guitar chords, Elvrum’s own vocals bring in weirdly jarring harmonies that shouldn’t work, but somehow are the cherry on the cake. The ‘Instrumental’ in the latter half of the record once again exhibit Elvrum’s quietly hummed vocals that make up such an integral part of the album.
Then we have the distortion, or lack thereof, that is worked and weaved into the songs. The Glow Pt. 2 is an album that really utilises its genre; the specifically lo-fi sounds on the record pushes cleanly recorded sounds one second, and distorted loud instrumentation the next. The organs, keys and drums especially are distorted to near comical levels, with Elvrum’s own vocals having the same effects slapped on them from time to time.
Perhaps the most notable use of this comes in ‘My Roots Are Strong & Deep’,’Map’, ‘Samurai Sword’ and ‘I Want To Be Cold’, where the instrumentals are incredibly flamboyant and energetic. They often proceed, or follow, quieter numbers, which often strip back the songs to their very core, such as on ‘I Felt My Size’. The whole effect makes the recordings even more colourful and intricate, throwing the listener around from extreme louds to extreme quiets in the blink of an eye.
While the album doesn’t have a necessary narrative, The Glow Pt. 2 keeps its shape by connecting the songs through what is, essentially, white noise. A song will end, or gradually disintegrate, only to be replaced by the pops of a record, or the residual noise from a microphone. Occasionally a haunting synth will break the near-silence, or some sort of other instrument will appear, only to vanish again after just a few seconds. The result of this makes The Glow Pt. 2 more of an aural experience than a coherent album; despite having 20 tracks, surprisingly few of them are fully constructed songs, with some perhaps only being ideas.
It’s no surprise then that you’ll find tracks on here called ‘Instrumental’, or ‘(Something)’. But this far from diminishes the value of the album; in fact, it makes the experimentation all that more interesting. This couldn’t be further away from a ‘demos’ album; the changes in length and sound are all very deliberate, and it brings the album together. When it comes to the closing track, ‘My Warm Blood’, the final two thirds of the song are simply white noise, as the ghosts of past songs filter in and out. What should be boring becomes captivating, hypnotic and wonderful.
Likewise with the lyrics, there’s no especial theme or concept, but Elvrum’s vocals nonetheless delve into the mundane (‘I Am Bored’), the personal (‘I Felt Your Shape’), and even the supernatural. ‘The Mansion’ and ‘Headless Horseman’ both tackle the supernatural, but in slightly different ways. ‘Headless Horseman’ shows Elvrum’s vocals at, perhaps, their most vulnerable. It feels like he’s using the idea of a headless horseman to describe a change in his personal life, but the picture he paints is really quite disturbingly beautiful. ‘The Mansion’, meanwhile, reduces Elvrum’s vocals to little more than a whisper, and the use of reverb really gives the impression of wandering through a rotting house, given over to nature. Both of these tracks show The Microphones’ lyrics at their very best.
All these elements make The Glow Pt. 2 a truly exciting listen. Elvrum’s experimental nature switches the sounds of this album around in the blink of an eye, whilst keeping the overall thing under one umbrella. To those who aren’t so much of a lo-fi fan, The Glow Pt. 2 might be a difficult listen, but for those who are patient with it, you will be greatly rewarded.
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