By opening with the absolutely silly song "Teenage Mustache," The Microphones' Phil Elverum is sending a clear message about his new release: You are not about to listen to a long-lost masterpiece. Instead, Early Tapes 1996-1998 is exactly what the title implies: a patchwork collection of old, unheard odds and ends from the late '90s. But just because it doesn't hold a candle to the band's masterpieces, The Glow Pt. 2 and It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, doesn't mean that it isn't enjoyable or worth the listen—if you're already a fan.
Early Tapes carries all the charms and all the problems of a prequel. Everyone loves an origin story and everyone loves nostalgia, and on those two fronts the album delivers. On each track, you are treated to the familiar, awkward, pleasant voice of Elverum singing brand new (to you) songs, and on a few of the better tracks, like "Wires and Cords" and "Compressor," you get a peek into how the endlessly quirky, experimental indie rock band evolved into something special. In addition, the album's liner notes include anecdotes and thoughts from Elverum that add insight into the band's history, not to mention the history of indie rock in the Northwest.
Still, prequels are not made for new followers. Listening to Early Tapes is like reading through a dusty box of letters dug up from the attic. If you know (and miss) the sender, they will tug on your heartstrings, even if it's mostly notes about the weather. If you don't know the sender, it's only some smudged, strange words about forgotten weather systems that passed through long ago.