There’s almost no reverb on It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water, The Microphones’ second, fifth or sixth album—depending on how you care to classify their catalog — originally released in 2000. It may not have been entirely by choice, but even if the decision were forced upon Phil Elvrum (now Elverum), it was a daring one anyway. For the Microphones’ only consistent member to consign an epic compositional scope to a dry, starkly intimate production, averting the lure of drenching it in canyons of echo, would probably make digital audio engineers in Hollywood shudder, making the leaves on the palm trees of their Hawaiian-print shirts flutter.
Considering that it was the first in the Microphones’ “elemental” trilogy of albums, in which avowed naturalist Elvrum surveyed the properties of water, fire and stone, it might not have even seemed appropriate to work within the constraints of lo-fi. But from a storytelling perspective, it was very much the right choice. Recorded at Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic studio in Olympia, Wash., It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water is a study in subjection and liberation, crossing through warmed tides to ice and back again. As slow and plaintive the change in seasons may feel like in real time, when one considers how much changes it could seem more drastic.
That’s why the sudden swings in sound on this album work, and why shifting instrumentation and imperfection succeed where reverberation would have been overkill. Elvrum and his small number of associates inject an intimacy into their ambition. Instead of telling the story in the arena or a circus tent, they tell it by the light of a campfire.
Elvrum sings in a very discreet, nearly apologetic tone, and not terribly often. It’s as if he’s not even going to mess with insisting his own way, putting a wary trust in the watery tides. In the opening track “The Pull,” a one-minute-plus nylon-string guitar line with no fixed root prepares him to go out of body, “floating like water in the air.” As he makes out someone on the ground surrounded by “the glow,” he exposes himself to gravity and starts a downward glide to meet up with it. Then the song explodes with loud, thin and distorted guitars and crude snare pulling him back down.
“The glow.” The distant image that gets mentioned all over this Microphones album and the next, The Glow Pt. 2, makes its first appearance in “The Pull” and forms the basis and title for the 11-minute track three songs later. If it isn’t a metaphor for an act of carnality — it seems like it is, but you don’t want to read too much into Elvrum’s method — “The Glow” certainly flows like it. Elvrum creeps in to the serenade of a slightly detuned choir with a buzzed Brian Wilson feel, and marches through “September and the next month towards the glow.” When the cold gets nearly unbearable, a very faint Mirah beckons him (“It’s me, the glow”) and they unite in the light for the first time. And again, the fury of nature checks in with a thud with extended, full-bore rock. Low-end guitars churn with misshapen crunch, small electronic sounds pop in and out, and finally the whole band almost disappears under seriously unequalized frequencies until it’s practically a carcass.
Elvrum’s entire ethos is summed up by “The Glow”: patience in build-up, modesty in narrative, servitude to nature and rampancy in release. Even in the more fragmented songs on It Was Hot, there’s some element of at least one of those points, usually two, in some way or another. The ‘50s-style stroll “Karl Blau” (“He told us to stop treading water/He sang about the sand”) anchors to foot-stomps and handclaps, even as the moon “must drift along.” The vocals in the single verse “The Gleam” are mixed so low they’re almost undetectable, which makes sense since it comes after the thunderous instrumental “Drums,” an almost-martial drum solo that suggests chaos where words wouldn’t have done the trick. Wobbly, somewhat detuned guitars frame “The Breeze,” giving off the impression of weather damage. And just as suddenly as “Drums,” “Organs” offers another tempest of intensity and gets cut off abruptly. That’s also the cliff-hanging end of the album. Bam, we’re done here, for the time being.
The album’s imperfections — for God’s sake, you actually hear a tape recorder turning on at one point in “The Glow” — aren’t just endearing: They remind the listener that Elvrum’s an artist of the strictest kind. “I have a limited arsenal of tools,” he once told Pitchfork, but that’s not quite true. He doesn’t have a need for them. Mechanism doesn’t suit his creativity; it’s mainly a distraction away from his own personal process. His method changed very little as the Microphones morphed into Mount Eerie, even if you could tell that there’s a very slight polish to his later works.
It Was Hot, We Stayed In The Water sets the tone, and in fact interlocks, with his acknowledged masterpiece The Glow, Pt. 2. At the moment that Elvrum caught the immediacy, warmth and scope of his music, he stopped. When he captured the full range of nature, he finished before anybody got the crazy idea to throw in something artificial. There may not be much reverb on the album, but 13 years later it still echoes.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.