While solo artists are nothing new, there seems to be a growing amount of music coming out by individuals single-handedly creating entire recordings and presenting the results as the work of a group.
Rather than going the traditional route of using one’s own name, solo projects appear under invented titles that imply group effort, leading you to believe you’re listening to the time-honored rock band, when you’re really hearing the painstaking work of a single musician. One of Olympia, Wash.’s shining specimens of the “Is this band a band or a guy?” syndrome is the Microphones. Written and executed primarily by Phil Elvrum, with assistance from a community of friends and musicians, this “band” has recorded ceaselessly since its inception in 1998, including two other releases for K.
While there’s something inherently dramatic about passing off a solo project under a collective moniker, the Microphones create something very striking without stooping to theatrics. Without listening closely, The Glow Part II passes by as faceless lo-fi indie rock. Slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitars and delicate singing kind of hide in the corner, bringing to mind the typical sulky bedroom recording artist, offering songs but trying not to draw too much attention. Upon repeated listening, however, it becomes clear that the Microphones does its best to draw absolutely no attention.
The record’s 70 minutes drift near-constantly through interludes and incidental music. Four of the 20 tracks are simply titled either “instrumental” or parenthetically “(something).” Full songs seem to finish almost as soon as they begin, blurring perception and leaving you questioning which parts are interludes and which are songs.
This ever-abrupt starting and ending has a highly leveling effect, leaving listeners similarly moved by the most quiet moments of fragile acoustic songs as they are by near-heavy metal sections of overdriven guitars and blown-out drums. It actually takes a few listens to get over feeling like you’re hearing the sound track for your own wandering mind and start to identify specific songs and parts of the whole. The music is boldly sad and beautiful. Elvrum’s voice is soft and trembling, singing with an audible sense of need and weight.
Themes of isolation and loss fill up every part of the music. Songs with deceptively silly titles like “I Am Bored” or “I Want To Be Cold” tell stories of tragic endings, impossible wanting and helplessness.
There’s a faded and classic quality to the entire album, like these songs and the feelings they’re expressing are hundreds of years old, just being re-sung and re-presented. Even as horns and strings glide through precise arrangements, the music maintains an otherworldly, almost crumbling feeling. “My Roots Are Strong And Deep” is almost hymnlike, through washed in waves of distorted toy piano and other indistinguishable sounds. Only occasionally do the song fragments dip into soupy lo-fi self-indulgence, as on “My Warm Blood,” the tedious last track, a nine-minute diatribe of barely audible tape hiss and silence.
The great accomplishment of The Glow Part II is its ability to leave such strong impressions without being anywhere close to melodramatic or overblown. The music is so remarkably understated that it becomes invisible, and The Glow Part II is a silently dazzling album, full of songs that get stuck in your head even though you don’t remember having heard them.
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