Mirah and Spectratone International: Share This Place
On Share This Place, Mirah has put together a song cycle about the lives of insects. And if that sounds problematic, that's because it is.
Share This Place might be, more than any other release this year, a prime example of the album as a series of risks. To make a compelling, challenging, and successful album isn't that much different than making an album that ultimately fails, except that the risks taken pay off on successful albums. Those risks take on a particular weight when artists step way out of their comfort zone, as Mirah has done -- along with collaborators Spetratone International -- in creating Share This Place.
Mirah was inspired on the new album by famed entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, who compiled a catalog of scientific literature about insects in which he would write from the insects’ point-of-view. In the same vein, Share This Place is a song cycle about the lives of insects, attempting to shed light on their complexity, and also compare them with that murky thing we call human existence.
So, yeah, that's a pretty big risk. And some of the elements of the risk pay off. The instrumentation, supplied by Spectratone International, is primarily made up of accordion and oud (a lute-like instrument mainly used in traditional Middle Eastern music) and it seems like the most fitting music for songs about insects. It sways and meanders; it bumps and stops. The plunk of the oud sounds like the musical equivalent of an insect's crawl. And the accordion hums along over it all, like a cicada's call or the flapping of wings. However, the production reins the instruments in way too much; everything sounds crowded, like the players were crammed into a janitor's closet for the sessions. At first, the crowded sound seemed fitting, like ants crawling quickly over each other. But, upon a second listen, the sound was too cacophonic and confusing to be intentional. The song most unhindered by the production is "My Lord Who Hums", which ends up being the most Old Mirah-y track on the album. That it is also one of the most successful is a tough omen for the rest of the album.
Because in the end, an album written about insects should be done with a light touch. On Share This Place subtlety goes a long way. When Mirah sings, at the end of opener "Community", the refrain "We get things done," it is playful, but also a bit defensive. The song has hinged on the work ethic of insects and the longer the explanation goes on, the less you believe the narrator's faith in it. So by the end, this refrain is as much flimsy assertion as it is conviction. On "Credo Cigalia", you can hear Mirah ache as she sings, "I've waited so long to greet the sun," and this line, along with a handful of others, shows that the album's greatest strength is Mirah's voice. She can emote, and use restraint when needed, and when she nails it, her words are honey-dipped stingers.
Lyrically, however, subtlety is abandoned more than it is used. Often, the lyrics rely on long-winded, detailed description of insects and their functions as a way to try and shed light on how we live as people. Insects are hard-working, we are not ... They are community-based, we are individualistic and selfish. This would be fine if the album shed any new light, or twisted these facts into something more compelling, but they don't. Mirah seems happy to set a list of insect characteristics on the page and leave us to compare ourselves to them, and, apparently, feel bad about how un-bug-like we truly are. And not only do the lyrics often stop short of their intention, they are bogged down by an overly mannered delivery. Perhaps this is the true influence of Fabre on the album, or a difficulty built into using more obscure instrumentation, but the lyrics are chock full of archaic language, often referring to "thou" and using "proboscis" where "nose" would be just fine. And there is something to be said for using correct terminology if you’re going to fully commit to the theme, but sometimes this sort of linguistic consistency doesn’t serve the album. "Song of Psyche" might be the exception to this, since it is as mannered as anything on the album, but it still manages to work. Musically, it's the best cohesion of the album’s sound and Mirah's previous output, and while the vocals are stilted, it is in a good way like, say, the vocals of Andrew Bird. And even though the song clocks in at over seven minutes, and has a spoken-word section in the middle it could probably do without, it is one of the best moments to be found on the album.
The album also purports to be a multimedia experience, with a video available on the disc for the final song, "Credo Cigalia". To call this multimedia, though, seems to imply that seeing the video would amplify understanding of the album, or at least work in tandem with it. But instead, the video is just a mildly interesting, stop-action video full of insects built of our cloth and reading glasses. It is another well-intentioned attempt on an album full of songs that try but don’t quite make it. Considering she's made great albums before, like Advisory Committee and C’mon Miracle, it's tempting to give Mirah a pass on this one. But it is hard to ignore the feeling that a newfound, and possibly fleeting, fascination with entomology got in the way of what could have been a solid new effort. There are enough good moments to satisfy the most hardcore Mirah fans on Share This Place, but, for the rest of us, we'll have to wait for her to get back to what she does best -- songs about humans.