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The Microphones - Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003

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Artist: The Microphones

Album: Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003

Label: K

Review date: Mar. 9, 2004

A little way into The Microphones new live album, you wonder whether Phil Elvrum is genuinely unhappy, or if it’s all a ruse: whether the sadness he’s squeezing out of his body like a tar-clogged sponge is just a dramatic gesture. You feel uncomfortable, like you’ve been had. It’s all the more puzzling for Elvrum’s previous ability to essay songs that are genuinely moving: when, as on his masterpiece Mount Eerie, Elvrum subsequently exposes the songs to avant tactics, it supported your thesis that The Microphones were (excuse me) ‘something special’.

That theory comes crashing to the ground with a wailing, loud ‘thud’ on Live in Japan, February 19th, 21st and 22nd, 2003. Elvrum’s ‘frailty’, his cracked voice with all its emotional weight, is exposed as another ruse, a guise: the performances documented on this recording are aimless, pointlessly sloppy, ‘performative’ in the worst sense. Elvrum’s spirit guide is gone, and the charm disappears: this is ‘the song’ as a series of empty signs. The guideless, wheezing parp of a melodica that splays itself all over “Universe Conclusion” (a song whose form-card of crescendos and lagoons of melancholy indulgence is as problematic as one of Will Oldham’s more formulaic constructions), or the weak, harmony-spillage of “Climb Over,” all bespeak an inability to grasp the ride of the moment, to shape a performance with delicate force.

Two versions of classic tunes – “My Favorite Things” and “Silent Night” – are documented acapella. Here, Elvrum’s tone of voice sounds like one desperately aware of the need to sound unaware of the listener (the deferred intimacy of the live context – I wonder if Elvrum plays with audience lights down so he can’t see his faithful). Lyrics are rendered anew, hovering close to the territory of the cringe, a problematic central to the whole of Live in Japan. You want to love this bare, of-the-moment Phil Elvrum, as his songs have often managed to navigate the line between grace and gauche, stumbling only occasionally. The live, acoustic context should work beautifully (Elvrum cast in a different light). Instead, Elvrum hams it, scraping his voice against the roof of the club, hanging on the wrong notes, revealing a side one tries to forget – the indie troubadour, the acoustic guitar melodramatist. This is song mapped miles away from where the Microphones should be.

Perhaps it’s easiest to convince yourself that earlier Microphones records, like Mount Eerie, don’t exist; to think that Elvrum is actually incapable of essaying any song that illuminates more than the utmost ends of his own navel. Because the dregsy, dragging contemplation at the heart of Live in Japan is as far away from The Microphones’ previous album as shit is from gold. Consider it alchemy undone.

By Jon Dale

Other Reviews of The Microphones

Mount Eerie

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