In human years, The Microphones’ It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water is turning 13 this September. But those 13 years happened to span the aughts, meaning that in music industry years, it’s more like a few lifetimes. Originally released in 2000, a horribly awkward limbo year of identity crisis for rock, sandwiched between Pavement and The Strokes, It Was Hot is an artifact of sorts now. Like almost every Microphones album, it’s one of the last albums of its era that’s sound can be reasonably described as “explorative” for a lo-fi analog indie rock effort.
It Was Hot is the third of five re-mastered Microphones albums Phil Elverum is re-releasing this year on his own P.W. Elverum and Sun label. And while it was Phil Elverum’s sixth official LP as The Microphones, this one feels like a first in a number of ways. It was his first LP in a streak to revolve around an element of nature – here, of course, water — before 2001’s The Glow pt. II captured fire and air and 2003’s Mount Eerie did rock. (Unsatisfied with how much he felt could still be explored with the rock idea after that last one, Elverum ditched the Microphones moniker to record as Mount Eerie in 2003.) It also marked his first time toying with “the glow” on record: an idea manifested through an 11-minute album centerpiece here and an entire 66-minute album one year later. And, until he would match or top it four or five times up to present day, it was Elverum’s first hands-down masterpiece.
To hear Elverum’s endless curiosity for the sonic boundaries of homemade analog recording techniques during his Microphones tenure is to hear what we could be missing out on today by taking that technology for granted. It’s similar to revisiting aged video games from when developers could only do so much with graphics, resulting in more left brain-intensive designs. But more simply, it’s an example of the creative stimulus that can come from being forced to work within certain confines; all of Elverum’s early Microphones recordings are uniformly characterized by his habit for jumping about giddily from one half-baked thought to another.
And, boy, does this one ever jump. Opener “The Pull” harnesses a tasty acoustic-rhythm-guitar beat before bursting apart with electric guitar and drums that blast so far into the red, the song’s key is barely discernible. Two minutes later, it’s a living room floor-type cover of Eric’s Trip’s “Sand” with hardly more than Elverum mumbling over a mini organ. All that before “The Glow”, the show-stopping fourth track that opens with multi-part vocal harmonies, transitions senselessly into wind-mimicking ambience, then settles into the most satisfying two-chord groove this side of “Roadrunner” while copping the guitar sigh of David Bowie’s “Heroes” for five minutes, before ending on one single, cutely incompatible high organ chord. Later are “Drums” and “Organs”, both offering only what their titles advertise and not a guitar strum more.
Elverum is a Seattle-area native, and it’s no coincidence that during the Microphones era, he was heavily influenced by the TV series Twin Peaks and the show’s woodsy, enchanting northwest backdrop. There’s a mysterious quality to It Was Hot, which at times would soundtrack an episode very well. The Microphones sound is inseparable from nature and the outdoors (see also: their late single called “Get Off the Internet”), and so too is It Was Hot from the magical glowing buzz of a summer night swim, about which Elverum repeatedly sings.
Essential Tracks: “The Glow”, “The Pull”, and “Karl Blau”