The Microphones



The entire aesthetic of Phil Elverum’s recent archival release of his band The Microphones’ “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water” (P.W. Elverum & Sun, 2013; K Records, 2000) is remarkable. Inside and out, even down to the LP labels, each element is carefully thought out and visualized and assembled. As an artifact, it’s stunning and complete. As music, it’s haunting and sensual and risky. I have all the pieces spread out before me as I write, the music spiraling softly around me in the room, balanced and rich and envy-inducing in every detail, mysterious and compelling, a sound hovering just out of reach. This record alone would establish the mystique of any artist, but this is just one LP from a prolific man in search of a never-ending story. His is a teeming and restless mind, building and tearing down, then rebuilding again. I’ve been struggling all morning to go from speechless to finding a few words to express what I’m feeling as I glimpse this one moment of this artist’s world. I need a new kind of review for this kind of work.

Inside every song there are at least two essential elements, two driving and competing forces: a longing and an insecurity. Every song is written, I think, out of a longing to connect to something essential, something sensual, known only to the senses but universally understood and sought after. The senses are constantly shifting, but the longing remains central. And as every song is being created, there’s an equally intense insecurity, a doubt, about whether the final result has made the desired connection. These two forces embody the risk an artist takes to create anything new. I suppose, over the long career of an artist’s songwriting, with many records and many songs, quantity is only a measure of the intensity of the quest. But even when added up, the number of songs any artist creates can never solely be used as a measure of success or failure. Instead, it’s just the miles logged in pursuit of something illusive. The longer the career, the greater the longing.

To live near Puget Sound, to live among these islands, is to live in a very real setting of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” islands and shipwrecks and mystery and danger. The Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, an archipelago of islands spanning national borders, attracting ships and visitors as they have done for centuries. And to the west, where the inland waterways open into the Pacific Ocean, lies an area called the Graveyard of the Pacific, thousands of vessels wanting to explore and settle and exploit these islands have left hundreds of lives lost in this stretch of water. To live among these islands is to learn a hundred names for the heavy weather that can be both beautiful and deadly. Elverum lives and works here. His band The Microphones have absorbed and redirected this natural beauty and natural danger into six studio albums, six EPs, and numerous singles, books, printed pamphlets, posters, and ephemera.

The 11 songs on this reissued record, lyrically speaking, read like the notes of an explorer deep in his physical experience of this place. Fog and mist, the pull of tides and waves, the moon rising and setting over land and dark water, bodies swimming and touching, burning and cooling, whole and broken and lost and searching for ways to speak, these are the images that float through the songs on “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water.” Although created more than 13 years ago, still the record’s arrival feels like something new, something risky. I’ve seen Elverum perform live just once, and there’s an almost tenuousness to his presence, as if he’s playing everything for the first time (as though even old songs are new), a bit unsure, questioning his ability, present in the moment of the sound as it’s made. This record perfectly captures that same fragile feeling. It’s his aesthetic. His risk taking. His voice.

There’s always been a precision to Elverum’s studio recordings with The Microphones and Mount Eerie, his current band. Precise, and yet there remains a sense of fragile discovery as he, along with Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (another K Records recording artist who generally goes by “Mirah”), Khaela Maricich (a Portland-based K Records recording artist and member of the electro-pop band The Blow), Jenn Kliese, Anna Jordan Huff (known by her stage name as Anna Oxygen, a Kill Rock Stars recording artist based in Olympia), guitar player Jason Wall, and Karl Blau (the legendary and prolific Knw-Yr-Own/K Records recording artist and frequent collaborator with Elverum), create this landscape of sound. They’re a group of explorers, of friends, chronicling their journey with sensitivity and innocence. At turns, quietly, other times with a roar.

So I come back to where I began: longing and insecurity and risk taking. One artist’s mind in pursuit of something complete as an object, yet just one chapter in a known story. Maybe the song “Something” is the most revealing expression of the mystery at the heart of this record, beginning with Elverum’s fragile voice and guitar, playing, as it were, through a lonely sound bridge of a recorded storm blowing over the water, wind whistling around the windows, softly howling. Does the storm want in, or do we want to go out into it? Then, Khaela Maricich, who wrote some of the lyrics and sings the second part of the song after Elverum, floats into the landscape as electric guitar and cymbals crash, chimes that almost sound like bells carried on the wind, over the island, by the storm. A warning? A magic spell? A calling? A shipwreck? From a whisper to thunder. “…and we were deafened by the sound/of foggy waves’ crash, it’s still ringing in my ears./But my ears and lungs are nothing/compared to my eyes, I saw something/in the sand that swept me off my feet./Oh, the blow!” Like “The Tempest,” everything on this record unfolds in real time, earthy, tactile, and symbolic, setting the scene for the next record to come, “The Glow Pt. 2” (K Records, 2001, soon to be rereleased as well).

Some people are drawn to these islands as explorers or exploiters. Some are born into the islands. To live on an island in these waters is to always be surrounded by wilderness, by forces you can’t control. The calmest sea still hides dangers and dreams. Phil Elverum is an artist who explores how every breath he takes is part of the watery landscape where he lives and works. Imagined or real, it’s a vast palette to create from. “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water” would be a career-defining moment for any artist. As an artifact, it represents risk, mystery, vision, and one memorable chapter in the life of an artist who is still searching and writing and performing. It’s a rare opportunity to see a record like this reissued in such an elegant package. And there are more reissues to come from his archive. I’m preparing to be amazed, again and again and again.