City Paper is not for tourists
Imagine waking up real early one morning to see the sun bristling against thunder clouds. Imagine sitting in your bedroom and writing a masterpiece about that sun. Because the rain has dried up for once. Because it makes you feel better to have done something with your morning. Because you think for just that moment that all we can count on in this world is that sun spiriting away those dark clouds. Your masterpiece is a song, a long one full of channel-hopping drums, strummed guitar, and little noises that sound like rattles. It’s your own sort of roots music.
If you’re Phil Elvrum, this is what you do. And as a singer, guitarist, drummer, studio whiz, screamer, heavy breather, and bedroom tapehead who records under the name the Microphones, he can’t stop.
So he tinkers some more. He stretches the tune out like taffy, going back and forth on those stereo channels, now with the guitars. By the end of it, he makes the cymbals sound like waves of feedback, crashing against each other, crashing through the mix. It’s a neat trickputting diamonds back into the rough, putting that sun back behind those clouds.
And it’s just the first of 20 songs on Elvrum’s recently released third proper LP, The Glow, Pt. 2, an album full of such tricks. An album on which Elvrum dissects mornings and midnights.
It’s simple and bittersweet stuff, nylon-string operas for those who like their Beck without beats, their piano twitchy and wrong-sounding like Thelonious’, their IDM without computers, their folk songs drained of white-boy sap. These are songs that stretch out and yawn, burp, shiver, go back to sleep, wake again wide-eyed and brittle, and saunter hands-in-pockets alone at 2 a.m. These are songs that don’t fit right in the bedroom or the car. These are songs made for the outside, soundtracks to the suns, clouds, and stars that Elvrum so often writes about: “I want wind to blow/My brains out/My clothes off/My balloon away/Sweep me off my feet/To take me up and not bring me back.”
Eventually, that impossibly delicate first track, “I Want Wind to Blow,” just stops. Suddenly. The morning has lifted and the day has become just another day like all the rest. Manic Mondays, Super Tuesdays, TGIFs. Elvrum puts his inspiration away. Because the moment is gone. It’s funny how songs are supposed to end with the fade-out or a big finish, as if Mr. and Mrs. Rock Band are playing before a studio audience. Why can’t they just stop?
Elvrum has seen what we have not and put it into a sound that had yet to be sung so completely, so passionately. He was 13 and living in a fishing village on Fidalgo Island, Wash., when Nevermind came out. At 14, he was hanging out at the town’s only record store. Soon he started a ‘zine, and then he started a band, and then he started experimenting in the studio, using music as his own weather vane.
Kurt Cobain couldn’t swallow life, so he swallowed a Remington shotgun. How do you follow a suicide? You learn from it. You avoid the mistakes that led to that despair. Instead of hiding from his desolate Northwestern environment, Elvrum uses it as inspiration. Each of his three full-lengths (not including his early-career cassettes) is themed around battles with nature. His first, 1999’s Don’t Wake Me Up, merely seemed to fight bedroom boredom. His second, last year’s It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, went outside for a swim. The Glow, Pt. 2 plays with fire: the heat from love, the heat from anger, the heat from seeing something as real and bold as the moon and being scared.
But in all three records, one thing is the same: the day’s bookends. It’s either dawn or after hours. When everyone in the world seems asleep, Elvrum is out charting what we don’t see and don’t feel: the McDonald’s wrappers left behind, the flutter of trees, the wind’s howl, the moon’s lament. It all feels big and grand and maybe a bit silly, but Elvrum is alone out there. And he has to get it all.
Elvrum moves on, dousing everything on the title track with feedback and pounding away on the drums so hard you wonder if the song has simply escaped him. He soon comes down, and it’s amazing that he can. He picks up his guitar for a few bars and throws down a little piano. Eventually, another guitar comes in and it plays such a goose-pimple-inducing hook that Elvrum keeps it going for a long time. “The Glow, Pt. 2” ends in that happy clatter. And it just stops, abruptly again.
Elvrum is an island now. Just him and that nylon-string guitar. He laments a bum relationship, but not for too long. He wants to keep things short: “Now I cling to rocks in wind/
It’s a precious thing we lost,” he sings directly into your ears. It’s been only four songs16 more dawns and dusks to go.
Of course, it helps that Elvrum can play a lot of instruments and can’t resist a new trick or two as a producer. Steel drums? Sure. Fuzzed-up piano? OK. Nobody has made the Northwestern soft-loud dynamic this emotional since Nirvana. But whereas Cobain sourced his music in metal and post-punkSabbath, the Pixies, the VaselinesElvrum has skipped all the way back to Phil Spector, painting with a larger palette of sound.
And with The Glow, Pt. 2, Elvrum has turned in his most consistent song cycle, having mastered the art of overproduction without suffocating melody. Though his first album felt trapped by the limitations of a bedroom four-track and It Was Hot was stifled under too many indie-type hooks, his latest mixes the quiet and the loud, the loose and the lonely perfectly, in a simple series of moments.
Elvrum has crammed so much into The Glow, Pt. 2 that it has taken me weeks to digest it. There are moments on this record that I can’t find again. But I know they’re there. I know there’s a part where a choirful of vocalists jumps up and sings. I just can’t seem to get back to it.
The songs ebb and flow. Bits of dub come in and show off for a moment and then disappear. The sound of a tugboat’s horn is a leitmotif. Sometimes it lasts too long; sometimes it’s just a quick blur, and then it’s taken over by the swing of a cello.
Then you’re back inside. It’s Elvrum with his guitar recounting his adventures in “I’ll Not Contain You.” His voice seems recorded over and over and repeated. There are dozens of tiny Elvrum voices calling out. It’s so damn intimate without being precious. It gives chills. It gives the heart a kick. But that will soon fade to a pounding piano and steel drums.
You have to wait a bit before things get pretty again, when a woman’s voice comes in like a sun shower. When the guitar sounds lonely again. When Elvrum sings about holding onto a woman’s waist on her birthday on “I Felt Your Shape.” He feels her chest rising and falling: “Your starry night, your lack of light/With limp arms I can feel most of you.”
And this moment will recede, too. Back to the tugboat’s call and another feedback burp and a piano trill. The Glow, Pt. 2 ends with the sun gone down again. Everyone is gone. If you were in the mood, this would be the time to swallow up all the drugs in the world, put on that Nine Inch Nails record, and crank it to infinity. Or you could simply take in the sad and the dark and the quiet. And feel OK about being lonely.
Because you could still see and smell and hear that magnolia tree rustle, catch a drunk or two giggling a back yard away, breathe in cigarette smoke trailing from a car window, feel a mosquito biting your knee.
“I’m alone except for the sound of insects flying around,” Elvrum croons. “They know my red blood is warm still.” CP