Much like the Microphones from which her solo career was spawned, Mirah has been lumped into the netherworld between a thriving indie pop scene and its often misrepresented counterpart of experimental, free-folk defenders. Simply lending her given name to her records and allowing her fragile vocals to serve as the engine for much of her work has relegated Mirah to the critical lens of singer/songwriter niceties – a tag that naturally bleeds over into coffeehouse acoustic, sure, but one that hardly encompasses this Portland eccentric’s sheer depth as a songwriter herself. If Mirah has a penchant for chamber music, fluttered orchestrations and the occasional autoharp dirge, her noncommittal attitude toward any one of those devices speaks just as loudly.
With each passing record, Mirah hasn’t so much made it a point to shake off these misnomers as further mine her abilities so as to uncover a voice of her own. Advisory Committee saw her slough away the lo-fi aesthetic that dominated her 2000 breakthrough, while C’mon Miracle saw her ducking out of producer Phil Elvrum’s dominating shadow and evolving her own knack for resourceful instrumentation that made her early home recordings so imposing in the first place. Apart from a set of remixes and the oddball collaboration with the Black Cat Orchestra for ’07’s Share This Place since then, (a)spera marks the first solid step forward for Mirah in nearly five years. As such, it’s an album that not only lives up to the promise of its predecessor, but proves the long wait was well spent as it delivers on most every level.
Opener “Generosity” stands to attention with a string quartet trill that steadies into a honeyed cadence before introducing Mirah’s lilting, crisp voice. Cueing up soft choir coos and charged guitar interludes that tilt the emotional balance back and forth within a matter of seconds, it’s the type of song that prefaces the range of the entire album without feeling at all cluttered. That the unearthly, subdued symphonics of “The World is Falling” and melancholy, oft-heard ode to troubled love in “Education” fit so well against one another is not only a testament to Mirah’s flair for memorable hooks, but a validation of her ability to weigh any number of musical strains against one another without any one of them threatening their overall stability.
From there, “Country of the Future” transforms her back-up band into a Middle Eastern drum circle, propelled by stacked tribal beats and a single whining violin that doubles as a buzuq for its queasy arpeggios. And while “The Forest” begs for Joanna Newsom comparisons as Mirah’s voice prances through a series of traveling bard verses accompanied by a lute, “Gone Are the Days” could easily be at home on some Starbucks compilation for its lazy boîte swagger wrought from hand-slapped percussion, nominal brass and sultry bass lines accented by marimba splashes.
Regrettably, the album lulls far too much when “The River” hits, lingering for an uneventful eight minutes with breathy lyrical tangents and faint guitar squeaks. It may serve as an apt pair to follow-up “Bones & Skin,” but the slump overstays its welcome as if slinking toward a premature conclusion that never quite resolves. Thankfully, “While We Have the Sun” gathers its purpose for a ruminative closer, recalling the same crushed-ice dreamscape that could have served as some lost Vespertine track, tempering Mirah’s swirling vocals with aquatic bells and starred harp plucks.
All told, (a)spera may not be the miracle for which she beckoned four years prior, but to the extent that she is able to realize her escalating ambitions so vividly without a hint of arrogance, Mirah rightfully sets herself among the bravest female artists flooding indie music today.
Bjork – Vespertine
Joanna Newsom – Ys
Land of Talk – Some are Lakes