Mirah Offers a Message of 'Understanding' During Difficult Times
Mirah has often embraced a DIY ethos that suggested experimentation and working with found materials. On Understanding, she goes much further out into the sonic stratosphere.
Absolute Magnitude Recordings
7 September 2018
Mirah has always been an empathetic and thoughtful singer-songwriter, so calling her sixth solo release Understanding does not seem surprising. However, the strange electronic musical effects on the discs are. Mirah often embraced a DIY ethos that suggested experimentation and working with found materials. This time she has gone much further out into the sonic stratosphere.
The recording process explains the difference between her new album and previous releases. Mirah began by recording demos with vocals, guitar, organ, and percussion in a former army barracks gymnasium at the Bay Area Headlands Center for the Arts, where she spent four weeks as an artist in residence. Then she took her demos back with her to her native Brooklyn where she teamed up with her frequent co-producer Eli Crews (tUnE-yArDs) and invited Deerhoof's Greg Saunier to the studio. The trio used a MIDI to transform a traditional marimba beat into a misshapen Farfisa organ melody, drastically lowered the pitch of vocals, and added layers of strange synth sounds, a mellotron, and an '80s era Soviet drum machine to the mix.
The results are alternately hauntingly beautiful and eerie. The music has a glossy smoothness that frequently gets interrupted by sounds that don't quite fit the beat, the melody or the tone of what was in the forefront. In some strange way, the discordant instrumentation emphasizes Mirah's storytelling. Her lyrics become the center of focus. And she has a lot to tell.
The album's lyrics are chockfull of social, political, and personal commentary. Mirah can be anthemic, on tracks such as "Counting" with powerful lines such as "We love to death our money / We love to death our gods / We're blowing up for money / We're blowing up for gods," and she can be intimate as on "Blinded by the Pretty Light" were she softly sings "In your heart to feel the beating / To hear you say 'Use my breath for your own breathing'." Despite the differences in style and substance between songs like these, Mirah's vocal intonations make all ten songs feel like they belong together. Her voice has a distinct personality that rings through the material.
Mirah's best songs offer the most specifics. This is true when she's delivering a message, as she does on the inspirational "Information" where she reminds one that while it's easy to get depressed by the current situation of American politics, one should use one's understanding (hence the album title) to make us kinder to each other. We all need a hand to hold.
It's also the case when Mirah simply poeticizes, as in "Lake/Ocean" with the beautiful yet disquieting phrase "My heart's elephant-sized with love of life / But in the dark it's too loud loud loud loud loud." Or as she puts it in the appropriately named "Ordinary Day", "It's called an ordinary day but that doesn't describe it / What's called an ordinary day has so much inside." Mirah's not content with simple labels and knows that while not everything can be explained, it can be understood on a deeper level.
That's why the production on this record matters. The sonics wordlessly reinforce Mirah's message that one needs to be considerate and accepting of others. That which may not be familiar or fit in is important for us to attend to for that very reason. The musical context expands the limitations of language, no matter how artful the words. Understanding reveals Mirah understands this.