[9 February 2009]
Eight years is a long, long time in pop music. Think of the difference between 1989 and 1997, or 1975 and 1983, or 1959 and 1967. Recording techniques change, audio formats change, genres flare up and die in smaller time frames than this. A phenomenally large number of musicians who were famous at the beginning of the time frame will be virtually forgotten at its end, either working in menial, invisible positions behind the scenes or out of the business entirely.
The gulf between 2001 and 2009, though, doesn’t seem to be quite as epochal. Many of the genres popular or burgeoning in 2001 are still going strong, as are a surprising number of that year’s supposedly-ephemeral stars, and stylistic changes have generally been small-scale and incremental (even given the vastly increased importance of the online world). 1997 to 2005 seems like much more of a chasm, if we are to stubbornly cling to this heuristic. Perhaps that helps make sense of why, even though it has been eight years since Miranda Lee Richards’s debut full-length, it feels like it has only been two or three. The record feels like a continuation, a natural outgrowth of the misty organicism she worked with on The Herethereafter, her 2001 debut for Virgin.
The Herethereafter had a spacey, post-trip-hop feel to it that put Richards at home in Dido Nation, though she never managed to attract nearly that level of fan base. Most of her notice came via a blitz of placements in films and television shows, media which perfectly suited her cheery, atmospheric Americana. While her music was heard far and wide, Richards herself sort of disappeared; she toured extensively at first, and managed to get big in Japan (no, seriously), but made no pretenses toward a follow-up and eventually fell off of everyone’s radar. She’d parted with Virgin but landed a deal with Canadian indie heavyweight Nettwerk, and issued a digital-only EP in 2008 before prepping the songs on the EP for inclusion on Light of X.
From the start of the album it’s apparent that Richards has mellowed ever so slightly, as she commences with “Breathless”, an earnest, piano-driven lament. “Life-Boat” is a breathy, breezy number with tons of reverb, delicate percussion, and a touch of pedal steel. Nowhere has Mazzy Star ever been more palpable in Richards’s songbook. She cites Hope Sandoval as an early influence, and their voices are very similar; she even looks like Sandoval, and on this record, she’s got Mazzy Star’s drummer, Keith Mitchell, playing for her. She’s good enough, however, to be more than just a clone, reminding of contemporaries such as Sarah McLachlan and Abra Moore while retaining some individualistic charm.
Shades of deeper roots in ’60s and ‘70s folk – Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, perhaps even the Pentangle – manifest themselves from time to time, as well. She bathes in echo, surrounded by muted string accompaniments and snatches of lonesome country-tinged guitar. “Pictures of You” picks the album up after an extended run of quiet ballads, sounding uncannily like Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” at its outset, but it ends up being one of the album’s weakest numbers. Most of the best tunes on The Herethereafter were uptempo, but here Richards has saved her gold for the slow burners.
Some of the songs do bleed together a bit, and the marks of distinction – the twinkling piano at the end of “Hideaway”, the la-la-la fadeout of “Early November”, the beautiful, shambling beginning and bluesy outro of high point “Here by the Window” – stand out against a somewhat homogeneous background. That said, it’s kind of the point. She’s going for a consistency of sound that’s designed to be unobtrusive, that can function both as background music and as a deep listening experience. Rather than engendering boredom, it gives the album a versatility that rewards repeated spins.
If she is to wait another eight years before her next LP, Richards can take solace in the fact that her idiom ages well. It would be a stretch to call it timeless, but then again, it’s a stretch to call anything timeless, and singer-songwriters aren’t about to go out of style any time soon. At the very least, it’s another 12 songs just waiting to be plucked for the montage scenes of next season’s prime-time dramedies.