Ladies and gentlemen, indie-rock now has its own equivalent of Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged.
Before I support this assertion, let me backpedal a bit. Those of you who’ve read my novel-length review of the Microphones’ 2003 release Mount Eerie already know that Phil Elvrum is one of my musical heroes. Having said that, I do believe that in retrospect, Mount Eerie’s attempt at musical metaphysics was a near-miss. The album still boasts many stunning moments, and in a scene of proud underachievers, Elvrum should still be praised for shooting for the stars. However, Eerie’s ambition was both a blessing and a curse. It was Phil’s most singular and cohesive statement, but it came at the expense of the individual songs therein. Only one song holds up well on its own, which means that you have to listen to Eerie in its entirety for the maximum desired effect. Unfortunately, very few people turn to forty-minute epics about the inevitability of death for pure listening pleasure. Thus, I listen to each of the Microphones’ previous five albums more than I do Eerie, a shame considering the accolades I heaped upon it when it first came out. Rock critics are still allowed to change their minds, right?
Shortly after that album’s release, Elvrum took a number of overseas voyages, playing his songs to whoever would listen, and generally doing what most people would refer to as “finding one’s self.” Live in Japan is a document of the artistic fruits of this process, a collection of live recordings of all-new material from three separate shows, some of which are played with an honest-to-goodness backing band. (From what I heard, the album is also a way to circumvent opportunistic bootleggers, but I haven’t been able to back those rumors up with anything.) I am generally wary of live albums to begin with, and having sat through many patience-testing shows in which bands try out raw versions of new songs to unsuspecting audiences, Live in Japan initially struck me as a doubly dubious proposition. Then, I remembered when I saw Phil do a solo set during K’s Paper Opera Tour a couple of years back. He sang and played beautifully, and utilized backing tapes, costumes, and audience participation in very creative ways. If half of the charm and skill that went into the set trickled down to the Live in Japan recordings, I would declare the album yet another essential Microphones release.
As it is, though, Live in Japan veers wildly from brilliance to frustration, with Elvrum’s solo songs faring the best. Opener “Great Ghosts” addresses Phil’s recent travails candidly. It talks about the difficulty of starting one’s life anew when the past still haunts you, and how important it is to simply accept yourself for who you are. It’s one of the best songs that he’s ever written, and most of the other songs come quite close. “The Blow pt. 2” shockingly turns its back on the nature worship that previous Microphones songs dabbled with, as Elvrum demands nature to stop subduing him and give him back control over his own life. “We Squirm” admonishes us to embrace our fears, and “After N. Young” is an optimistic farewell to disappointment. With the exception of the four-minute “Great Ghosts,” all of these songs are brief, acoustic, tuneful, and urgently sung ditties that suggest Guided by Voices gone mellow and philosophical. The intimacy of the arrangements suits these confessional songs so well that most listeners won’t even miss the abrupt booms and crashes that characterize most Microphones recordings.
The full-band stuff, on the other hand, is an absolute chore to listen to. Phil’s cohorts, who include K founder Calvin Johnson on backing vocals, musically resemble a tired, barely competent bar band playing one final, listless jam before last call. When they employ ensemble singing on songs like “’I love you so much!’” and the endless 11-minute “Universe Conclusion,” it sounds like a chorus of off-key drunkards crying into their beer. I’m willing to wager that Phil assembled the backing band five minutes before the show with no previous rehearsal. The only person in all of music who should be able to get away with that is Chuck Berry. It would be one thing if these were well-written songs that just happened to be butchered in the live setting, but all of these songs are repetitive dirges that bear none of the melodic complexity or the lyrical profundity of the solo songs. Phil sounds like he’s just making up the words as he goes along (and he probably is). I don’t even think that these songs could qualify as “you-had-to-be-here” moments. Music this bad can’t POSSIBLY be fun to watch.
This is where the Lauryn Hill comparison comes in. Both MTV Unplugged and Live in Japan find their artists in periods of artistic and emotional transition. The lyrical content on both albums spell the transition out bluntly, and the musical arrangements on both albums are nothing if not naked and stripped-down. Both albums have enough flashes of brilliance to make them worth listening to once, but also have enough painfully bad moments to keep me from recommending paying full price for either one. Both albums also contain the faint whiff of labels cashing in on the popularity of these artists one last time before their relevance starts to fade. Here’s hoping that Elvrum doesn’t disappear completely inside his own head like Lauryn did, and instead uses the better material on Live in Japan as a template for even more great music.
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