The Passenger
The Microphones: Live In Japan
By Andres Restrepo

Phil Elvrum and his Microphones have been responsible for some of the most accomplished albums so far this decade, and some of the strangest concerts on Earth. Elvrum converts the concert hall into a forum for the zany, the haphazard and the bizarre: one night’s set list might consist largely of improvised tunes, while another night might find the various musicians interacting more with each other and the audience than with their instruments - frolicking up and down the aisles, or hiding behind makeshift fortresses. The chances of hearing a familiar Microphones tune at one of these shows are slim to none.

So how could a live Microphones album possibly convey these festivities, which are at least as visual as they are auditory? I don’t have the answer, and apparently neither does Phil Elvrum. Instead, Live in Japan (K Records) avoids this issue entirely.

Compiled from shows in Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo in February of last year, Live in Japan is a heavily edited portrait of a Microphones show, trimming away the carnivalesque elements in favor of the music itself. What we get is a collection of beautiful, new pop songs that fall squarely in the acoustic singer-songwriter territory. The Microphones’ studio albums have always stretched lovely acoustic pop across a broad, experimental template, and with that template now shed, the songs themselves sparkle with their own clarity. And it’s no coincidence that a song called “After N. Young” appears around the album’s halfway point: Neil Young is the clear inspiration and influence behind songs like “Great Ghosts” and “The Blow pt. 2,” which recall the more sober moments of Tonight’s The Night and After The Gold Rush. But while Neil’s voice rattled with loneliness and tragedy, Elvrum’s offers both a boyish innocence and the wisdom of an old soul.

Among the record’s most curious gems are impromptu renditions of “My Favorite Things” and “Silent Night,” the latter of which begins normally but then gives way to an original and startlingly relevant set of lyrics: “Tiny voices egg on the fight/ Offering choices like mercy or might/ Well, outside the wind in the trees/ Roars that my war’s a disease.” The tiny audience doesn’t quite know how to react, but even though this album doesn’t stimulate or intrigue me as much as 2001’s The Glow Pt. 2 or last year’s Mt. Erie, it brings me more unmitigated pleasure than either. At 25, Elvrum’s Live in Japan signifies no short supply of creativity for the future.