Echoes of the Dreamtime
US: 29 Jan 2016
UK: 29 Jan 2016
Miranda Lee Richards first appeared on music fans’ radar via her collaborations with Brian Jonestown Massacre, though she never officially joined the band. The association gained the kind of industry attention that enabled her to record her first solo record, 2001’s The Herethereafter, in which she expertly wove assorted threads of folk, psychedelia, and dreamy pop into a highly praised debut, earning comparisons to Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and the Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris. 2009’s follow-up Light of X mined similar territory but generated a less warm reception, with some critics worrying that Richards’ lyrical abilities did not live up to the sonic moods and influences she evoked.
Whether or not those criticisms struck home, Richards returns seven years on with Echoes of the Dreamtime, an album that fulfills all the promise of her debut and which finds her maturing into the kind of songwriter who can surprise listeners with turns of phrase or sound that seem familiar until examined closely. Richards offers up a deeply spiritual album here, some may say Christian in its referential symbolism, but more deistic to my ears, taking for granted a greater power in the universe but not getting lost in any need to solve the mystery of that power’s origin or purpose, beyond seeing in it a wish for benevolence for its creations.
The overarching theme of searching appears from the album’s opening cut, “7th Ray”, with its story of an innocent “born with feathers in your hair” searching for meaning amidst the glitz of the urban club scene, seeking connection amidst the falsity, only to, as layered guitars mix welcoming riffs, find “a new way home”. “Tokyo Dancing” offers a similar story, its subject searching for meaning only to face a beast of indistinct but sinister purpose. Nonetheless, the message is to continue on, for only through persistence will we learn “What’s in store for our future.” In “Colors So Fine” Richards reveals an understanding that, though her vision is promising, she is still far from the path to enlightenment, while “Julian” demonstrates her ability to cut through the bullshit and call out a false prophet. The subject of this song seems like a guru who promises spiritual conversion as a means, simply, of converting faith to profit.
One of the album’s highlights is its first single “First Light of Winter”. Accompanied by a swampy psychedelia, Richards embraces the insatiable hunger of her striving, seeing it as the beast inside herself that it is and welcoming it into a warm embrace. There’s a hint of Berryman’s Dream Songs to this internal monologue when she counsels herself to “grab the line before you hit the bottom”. When she states a wish to “write a letter to the government”, it is with a sense of dis-ease with all powers that be, not so much a criticism of any particular administration, but a giving into a general sense that the system is no longer able to protect us from the many terrors surrounding us, both from within and without.
This sense of lost compass is amplified in “It Was Given”, a song, Richards notes, that was inspired by Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “Random wicked acts create disorder and erode the people’s faith that life makes sense. The suspicion that the known facts cannot be made to add up is as disturbing as if the earth gave way beneath our feet.” Richards’ lyrics do a fine job of encapsulating the plot and mirroring a sense of dread where “even the children with their angelic stares” are suspected of hiding something. That order is eventually restored without benefit of the many mysteries being solved is a cold comfort.
And perhaps there is something of an answer there. Prayers aren’t answered, but that doesn’t make them false. The spiritual quest should never be concluded. Every possible answer is a possible trap denying progression into perception of a deeper awareness. Album closer “Already fine” offers a psalm’s simplicity in stark contrast to the busy symbolism of the album’s seven other tracks. “Like frankincense, myrrh, and wine / You were already fine.” Each lyric is as simple and direct. At album’s end, the journey is not yet over, but there remains awareness that the striving that drives the journey might itself be misleading. This sense of contentment in the lack of answers is the definition of maturity.
Produced by Rick Parker, who also plays multiple instruments, and grounded by the strong lead guitar work of Randy Billings, the musical arrangements on Echoes of the Dreamtime surround Richards’ warm voice in complementary sonic textures that welcome the listener into her musings. The folk-psychedelic accompaniments are never overly busy as they set the mood for each song. In all, the eight tracks that comprise the album flow seamlessly into each other, creating a vibrant whole. Richards has grown beyond her influences and is ready to become, herself, a spirit guide to a new generation of songwriters.
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