Singer/songwriters who play guitar are a dime a dozen; you see them everywhere you go, from college dorms to coffeshops to city street corners. Solo musicians playing songs they write about their personal lives and stories are a tricky bunch. For every Joni Mitchell or Richard Thompson, there’s a billion plus people like that guy singing in the Barnes & Noble “coffeehouse” who introduces every song with a “This is a song I wrote when…” spiel. Or the fairly well-known singer/songwriter I saw once, who would say “Here’s a song about my lover taking me on a vacation to Europe and then dumping me,” and then the first line of her song would be, “Oh, my lover, why did you take me on vacation to Europe and then dump me?,” in an all-too-serious tone of voice. Both are scenes begging to be Saturday Night Live sketches, if they aren’t already.
On her debut, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This, Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlya avoids this trap amazingly well, by writing songs which articulate entirely personal emotions in a beautiful, poetic way. The first song starts sparsely, like she’s singing right in your ear, and immediately keys you in to what type of music this is. Yet you’re also tuned in to another aspect of her music, how direct and visually suggestive the lyrics are, right from the first line: “I’m far away and I’m feeling alone / I’ve got one week behind me, just six more to go / If I could see you I’d take off your clothes / And we’d lie in the garden and watch the weeds grow.” In every song, she does a great job setting a visual scene and expressing moving thoughts in the same verse.
Mirah’s working in that genre of love songs, breakup songs and confessionals, but she adds a new life to it, not only because of the astute lyrics but also her stunning voice and her sense for melody and harmony. Plus she has a knack at interesting musical accompaniment, something usually missing when you’re working with mostly one musician. These songs do not all sound the same; the music is varied without being self-consciously so (the exception being the final track, “Words Cannot Describe,” an obvious stab at jazz which still works only because of the strength of the tune, lyrics and voice).
There are so many magical moments here that this CD is worth every second and every penny, from her especially gorgeous, subtly intense singing on “La Familia” to the mysterious little ditty “Pollen.” She’ll no doubt be compared to all sorts of other female singer-songwriters (I’ve read Cat Power comparisons so far, and Liz Phair will likely come up, due to both singers’ directness concerning sexuality), but don’t believe the hype; Mirah’s a unique voice singing equally unique songs.