Live In Japan, February 19th, 21st, and 22nd, 2003
Stripped bare of the ramshackle choral grandeur and haphazard percussive scrapings that so often lifted Phil Elvrum’s Microphones into a realm of bloody-but-unbowed revival tent ecstasy, this is a desolate and haunted Microphones that Japanese audiences were treated to on those chilly February evenings. Elvrum strips down his songs to the fine ivory skeleton, letting the marrow shine and reflect off the stage lights. Appropriately enough, the first song, a hushed “Grey Ghosts,” is even about phantoms and uncertainty. All quiet strums and beautiful pure enunciation and tiny epiphanies with the rise and fall of each phrase. Songs that often furtively disappear the moment they are caught by unaware ears.
Elvrum makes it all seem so effortless and natural, even when speaking of exile. The soul-deep loneliness only lends the songs more majesty, the straight-backed pride of the survivor, rendered coldly and surely with the line about “your tyrant heart” from “We Squirm.” The sound is ageless, haunting pre-country and folk, reflected and refracted through the maddened isolation of Syd Barrett, the desperate whimsy of the Incredible String Band, the unfolding and improvised majesty of a Van Morrison, amid countless others.
“The Blow pt. 2” begins with a whisper and careless abstract strumming, and ends violently with a harsh cry; it comes so suddenly and unexpectedly, as if the record was yanked off the turntable and shattered on the floor, as if he’s trying to reflect as honestly as possible the unfair and arbitrary nature of separation. Life is leaving, after all. Elvrum mischievously presents tweaked takes on “Silent Night,” and “My Favorite Things” delivered a cappella. (Weird.) “After N. Young,” clocking in at just over one minute, should by all rights be no more than a trifle or sketchbook doodle, but somehow transcends its own temporal limitations as a jaunty/downbeat manifesto on the illusions of independence; “you’re not mine/I’m free at last/or so I say,” and his voice quavers right out into silence on “say.” Wow.
“Climb Over” crawls along like vintage Low, wringing out full potential from each spare note, with some bizarrely out of place space synthesizer popping in along with a fraught cameo from Little Wings fulcrum Kyle Field. “Thanksgiving” suddenly bursts forth from its easeful melancholy and musings on the relative comforts of solitude with a ragged shout of “the moon won’t take you out to wine and dine.” Elvrum rings it way too true. I guess it’s time to leave the comfort of these walls, man. He turns the attack on himself even more forcefully, yelling at himself to “shut up, Phil,” wondering why he fritters away love when he has it, and the depression of being fucked whether you try to change or not — it ends all too cruelly, with nothing changed.
The album’s misplaced bookends, seem to these ears to be the two epic tracks where the Microphones are augmented by Calvin Johnson and Little Wing’s Kyle Field to flesh out his cosmic desolation music. “I Love You So Much!” begins with a gambit similar to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “This Is What She’s Like,” with the trio gently prodding one another with the mantra “what do you love?” until Elvrum takes the lead with repeated protests of “I love it so much,” gaining greater urgency until he rushes headlong into frantic explanations of how he can’t describe his love with words, “only look into his face to see it.” The music builds up and breaks down spontaneously in brittle and taut waves of sound — the Johnson/Field greek chorus is a beautiful effect, especially as Elvrum becomes more and more frenzied alongside an electric guitar until he becomes so frenzied that he loses the power of speech and resorts to primal howls of frustration, or perhaps boisterous happiness at knowing his secret is safe.
“Universe Conclusion”, on the other hand, is a sprawling, near-cosmic epic, almost eleven minutes of pure ex(orcism)ploration. To hear the three voices of Elvrum, Field and Johnson joining together, breaking apart, playing off one another is a pretty shiver-inducing moment. Three of the great emotive non-singers of recent years. Guitar, genuinely affecting piano and harmonium form the baroque core of this cosmic meditation. The pure-hearted ambition and emotional reach of this number is amazing, much feels totally improvised. When Elvrum and Field (Wings) join voices, howling and shrieking in and around one another, it’s totally thrilling and scary. Just as the music hits this incredible punishing groove, sorta roadhouse meets chamber music hell. Then it all dies down to a tearful whisper and flourish of “where did I live my life/how did all my songs go fast,” without the slightest hint of self pity, only sweet exhausted surrender and that’s the moment the knife really goes in. The song ends with the defiantly exhausted “I won’t give in out of fear/I won’t start singing until this place is empty.” But we couldn’t possibly leave now. A-fucking-mazing.
K Records: www.krecs.com