Today we look at new records from three veteran acts – an archival release from the late Tom Petty (who released his first record in the 1970s), The Flaming Lips (who released their first record in the 1980s), and The Microphones (first recorded in the 1990s).
Wildflowers: All the Rest
Of the sixteen records that Tom Petty released with The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist, 1994’s Wildflowers is my favourite. It captured Petty in a productive phase as a writer – it was originally planned as a double record with 25 songs, but was cut back to 15 tracks. Wildflowers has recently been reissued as a 2CD set, with 25 songs, and as a deluxe 5CD set – both editions include All The Rest, which collates the ten tracks cut from the original version.
Of the ten songs featured on All The Rest, many will already be familiar to Petty fans. Four tracks surfaced on Petty’s next project, the soundtrack to the Ed Burns movie She’s The One, while ‘Leave Virginia Alone’ was gifted to Rod Stewart. While the original Wildflowers painted a portrait of a troubled marriage, there’s less of a narrative on these additional tracks.
These are very strong outtakes – taken as a ten track album, it’s a solid Petty release, more coherent than She’s The One. It’s less diverse than Wildflowers – while the original Wildflowers ranges from the emotionally raw and acoustic ‘Don’t Fade On Me’ to riff-rockers like ‘Honey Bee’, All The Rest is largely comprised of mid-tempo, full-band songs. The material is strong – the tracks that ended up on She’s The One make more sense in this context, particularly ‘Hung Up and Overdue’, with Carl Wilson on backing vocals, which is an effective closer on this sincere record. The previously unreleased tracks are all worthwhile – the pretty folk-rock of ‘Confusion Wheel’ and ‘Harry Green’, and ‘Somewhere Under Heaven’, which edges toward rock anthem territory.
It’s not quite a lost classic, but any Tom Petty fan should enjoy the ten tracks featured on All The Rest.
The Flaming Lips
Oklahoma City’s The Flaming Lips have been around since the early 1980s. They made their name in the 1990s with psychedelic alt-rock releases like ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’ and In A Priest Driven Ambulance. Their legacy defining work is generally considered to be 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, where they employed a symphonic sound behind Wayne Coyne’s emotive voice. Songs like ‘The Spark That Bled’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ were masterpieces. The Soft Bulletin is often found near the top of best records of the 1990s lists, drawing comparisons to The Dark Side of the Moon and Pet Sounds.
The Lips have dipped back into the grandiose textures of The Soft Bulletin again often since that landmark record – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was another ballad-heavy record, and new record American Head also recalls their 1999 masterpiece. At the same, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, as song titles like ‘You N Me Sellin’ Weed’ and ‘At The Movie on Quaalades’ indicate. Coyne’s goofiness has always been an endearing aspect of the band, stopping them from being overcome by bathos. Here his quirky storytelling provides a different topping on the Soft Bulletin sound.
Even on their sixteenth album, The Flaming Lips are still writing memorable melodies. Coyne’s voice navigates the pretty tune of ‘Flowers of Neptune 6’, underscored by pedal steel, while ‘When We Die When We’re High’ is an instrumental with plenty of melodic ideas. Country artist Kacey Musgraves acquits herself well, dueting with Coyne on ‘God and the Policeman’.
American Head isn’t as essential as the best Flaming Lips records, but it’s an enjoyable echo of greatness.
Microphones in 2020
It’s been a tumultuous few years for Phil Elverum – in the last five years he’s become a father, lost his wife to cancer, and come through a brief marriage to Michelle Williams. Microphones in 2020 is his first record as The Microphones since 2003’s Mount Eerie – in the interim he’s recorded as Mount Eerie.
Microphones in 2020 is notable for its format – it’s one single song, 44:44 in length. It’s clearly not the most lucrative form of presentation in the pay-per-play era of 2020, and it’s pointedly not on Spotify.
The stage is set by a seven-and-a-half minute acoustic introduction – it’s mesmerising and gorgeous, two acoustic guitars out of phase with each other. While a long track often consists of a bunch of shorter tracks stitched together, Microphones in 2020 is one long song. There’s an organ-driven interlude around the 26 minute mark, but that effectively functions as a bridge. Otherwise it’s Elverum delivering stream-of-consciousness lyrics over a repeated chord sequence, but it’s engaging all the same, with Elverum’s lyrics and arrangements keeping the lengthy song entertaining.
The long acoustic song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics recalls Mark Kozelek records like Benji – an impression reinforced when Elverum namechecks Red House Painters; “Eric’s Trip, Red House Painters, Sonic Youth, This Mortal Coil.”
Microphones in 2020 is a risk-taking record, a single long song, but it’s rich and engaging.