As the main project of K's resident recording engineer, Phil Elvrum, the Microphones have always been half song and half studio experiment--juxtaposing sweet singing and delicate pop arrangements against blasts of guitar noise and tape manipulation in a way that has drawn inevitable comparisons to avant-popsters Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. On the Microphones' fourth LP, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, the band finally finds a keen balance between the two extremes, evolving past the studio fuckery and fragmented tunes of 1998's Don't Wake Me Up and the non sequitur strangeness of 1999's Window. The result is a satisfying and engaging road trip of an album, complete with changing weather patterns and amp-rattled car windows.
The album's opener, "The Pull," begins with a full minute of strummed acoustic guitars bouncing between left and right channels. Elvrum whispers a firsthand account of his own death--"My body stopped moving and quickly got cold/I made my escape through exhaling lungs/And watched my body rise away"--and then the song gives way to an avalanche of distorted guitars and bombastic drums. The crashing climax flows into the opening of the next track, "Ice," which moves like "The Pull" in reverse--from a locomotive drumbeat and cacophonic feedback to quiet glockenspiel and the choir girl vocals of Mirah Yom Tom Zietlyn.
At the heart of the album is the 11-minute epic "The Glow." Between its guitar and drum passages, the track is carried through its more atmospheric moments by Elvrum's angelic voice and simple, decidedly unpoetic accounts of the supernatural. When he murmurs "I started to glow" over an eerie wash of plucked strings, tape delay, and wind sounds, you can almost see the light.
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The best moments on the record occur when Elvrum uses studio manipulation and sound effects to add depth to his inspired songwriting. Unfortunately, a good part of the second side resigns itself to pure sound, with tracks like "Drums" and "Organs" nothing more than what their titles suggest. But the beauty of the well-executed songs outweighs the less-focused material, making It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water the Microphones' most realized work to date.