[16 July 2008]
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn – better known as merely Mirah – has become a familiar name to those who’ve followed the Northwestern music scene since the early 2000s. Besides work with Phil Elvrum (Mr. Eerie/the Microphones), the Black Cat Orchestra, and Ginger Brooks Takahashi, each of Mirah’s three solo albums has received a warm critical reception, even if she hasn’t been embraced enough by the larger indie pop listening audience. This has always been a shame, because Mirah’s music embodies much of what makes indie pop interesting. She uses out-of-tune instruments, organic recording techniques, and collages of found sounds to give character to her songs. She shuttles quickly and expertly between styles, while retaining a distinct voice. She’s not circumspect about putting forward an alternative voice in a crowd of lovesick, conventional female singers. And all this makes her a richer, and more rewarding, songwriter.
That Old Days Feeling collects 14 unreleased and rare Mirah recordings, making them available to everyone for the first time. Okay, I know what you’re thinking – here’s an underrated but not inaccessible singer, unreleased rarities – for dedicated fans only, right? I won’t argue that’s not going to make up the bulk of the audience for That Old Days Feeling, but it would be a shame if those are the only people who heard it. These songs catapult through Mirah’s various musical interests and paint a full picture of the artist’s quirky worldview.
There are a few female singer-songwriters out there with a personality big enough to match Mirah: Regina Spektor, the Blow’s Mikhaela Maricich, Kimya Dawson. And in the same way that you’d never confuse those singers with each other, Mirah also stands apart. Her straightforward delivery belies some occasionally subversive content (as on the lesbian love song “Dreamboat”), but more often, Mirah paints herself as a twist on the classic Betty Boop character reclaimed. The gentle love songs are always presented through the prism of interesting character, whether it’s the short ballad of dislocation “Location Temporary”, which finds its protagonist stranded in sand dunes (“I don’t know how we got so far away”), or the overwhelmed singer of “Lone Star”. That character declares the object of her infatuation is “as big as Texas”, a neat image illustrating the way new love swallows you up completely.
These songs are short – some are barely more than sketches, and the 14 songs together run not much more than 30 minutes. Even in brief glimpses though, Mirah often charms. “Birthday Present”, barely over a minute and a half, recalls another smart, short postcard song – “Get Well Now” by the Lucksmiths. Both songs casually lay down their wisdom and alight before you realize they’re even there. Nevertheless, the few more fleshed-out songs on That Old Days Feeling that demonstrate a larger structure, approach the success of Mirah’s other recorded work. “The Sun” opens softly and builds over guitars, keyboards and multi-layered vocal “Ahs” into a glorious cacophony – it’s probably the best thing on the record. “Land Ho!” is sparser, lending greater weight to the wonderful nautical imagery: “What is it that sailors drink so the ocean doesn’t sting them? / I’ll have a few and wait for you in my big tall ship”.
This pause in the middle of (hopefully) a much longer career allows established fans to find more to love, and new listeners an easy hook into the work of a singer-songwriter who should be talked about more often. Let’s hope it works.