In the tradition of Henry Thoreau (or something like that), Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn and Ginger Brooks Takahashi (who, for the sake of my wrists, shall heretofore be known simply as Mirah and Ginger) temporarily forsook the familiarity of Olympia, Washington (the home of K Records), to make music in the mountains of North Carolina. And they didn't let the fact that they'd only known each other for a short time--and had certainly never written together--get in the way of their dream. I, for one, am thankful for their spontaneity and ambition--and that they had the talent to pull it off.
Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project is the result of their journey--a collection of nine songs peppered with nine tracks of musical experiments and found sounds that enhance the surrounding cuts and remind you that you're listening to an album not likely to be duplicated.
Not being a musician myself, I'm not experienced with a good time-to-music ratio, but it seems to me that nine songs in a month is pretty solid production. That would be enough in itself even if the songs were not as good as they are. Sure, they're stripped down, and perhaps the choice of instruments is rather unconventional (not that I'm complaining--I love the steel drum!), but looked at on their own terms, songs like "Pure," "The Knife Thrower," "Life You Love," and especially "Oh! September" would be fine additions to any musician's repertoire.
The album begins with "Lil Bit (of Baritone)," a mild baritone ukulele piece that is a lovely opener. After crickets and what sounds like the guts of a jack-in-the-box, the next tune is "The Red Curtain," which introduces us to the eclectic instrumentation that is the signature of the project. Steel drum, melodica, a Middle Eastern inspired ukulele melody are just some of the interesting choices made on this song. It's a moody piece that, while challenging the listener's perceptions, speaks directly to one's pop sensibilities. It is almost certain that this kind of experimental album could only be released on the independent-minded K Records.
"The Knife Thrower" is the first song from the
Project to have lyrical content, although I'm not sure I could tell you what it's about. Nevertheless, it quickly became a favorite in my household due to its similarity to the kind of songs that used to appear in Disney movies (e.g., the Mary Poppins era) before Randy Newman took over. "The Party," despite being the third tune in a row to feature steel drums (everything in moderation, I say), is catchy enough for its minute-plus running time, but "Life You Love" is where the listener begins to look at this collection as something more than a novelty. "Mirah goes country" is as apt a summary as any, with lap steel guitar featured and Takahashi's ubiquitous ukulele standing in for the expected banjo.
Our first real introduction to Takahashi's smooth vocals comes in the form of "Pure." Using the sounds of crickets as a backing track, she is accompanied by a mellow hand drum and drone, with the occasional backing voice and guitar, as she opens with the mesmerizing "hypnoti-ize, hypnoti-ize" and sings about her lack of the title virtue in another of the highlights of this album. "While We Have the Sun" is reminiscent of Mirah's solo work, reminding the listener why she is one of K Records' flagship artists. "Rock of Ages," however, is a misfire. The out-of-tune piano jars and the different vocalists can't seem to get their acts together. But even this song has a pleasant group vibe going for it.
They've saved the best song for last and "Oh! September" is one you'll be humming for weeks to come. How they brought Olympian indie pop to North Carolina I'll never know, but this encapsulation of the experience the participants shared in the creation of the
Black Mountain Music Project uses the basic bass, guitar, and drums motif (with handclaps and "doo-wop" backup) to create a catchy pop confection with its invitation to "meet me at the back shack baby/you'll bring your little ukulele" and "let's make a song on the eight-track tonight."
More people should "get away from it all" if such products as
Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project would be the result. It truly embodies the independence ethic and shows that music-making doesn't need a studio to be of a certain quality. Take a romantic notion (music in the mountains and marking the end of summer) and combine it with two intensely creative individuals--invite a few friends over for social interaction--and hopefully you'll come up with something that resembles this album.
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