33 rpm (Mirah)

33 rebellions per minute

"There's blood and bones and rivers to fall in"



Four songs into my first listen to Mirah (full name Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn)'s debut full-length, I was already happily sure her CD was a keeper, withholding formal judgment only to acknowledge the theoretical possibility that the remainder of the disc might be death-metal, or yodeling/vomiting sound collages. I knew I liked her sweet voice, like a 13-year-old Lisa Germano, romanticism still untainted by the certainty that love is a vicious delusion sold via an infomercial cartel 3-billion people strong. And I knew she had an intriguing arrangement sense: singing "Million Miles" in a low, sleepy, somewhat gravelly voice over a string-bent ukelele that sounds more like a Japanese koto. Opening "Sweepstakes Prize" with full retro Phil Spector flourish, fading down to one closely miked Buddy-Holly-ballad guitar and an optimistic mumble, harmonizing her sweetly piercing chorus voice with an even higher near-monotone, closing when cymbals and kettle drums smash in on a railroad-track rhythm and carry the song away on a mini-symphony of cello, violin, and rumbling bass feedback. Building "Of Pressure" like Tullycraft or Tall Dwarfs, cheap drum machine and 60-cycle microphone buzz and handclaps and toy organ and a blank vocal repeating the same - - _ three-note pattern. Wrapping "This Dance"'s guitar, badly in need of oiling, over abstract tambourine rumbles and xylophone patter.
"La Familia", the fifth song, was nonetheless a serious attention grabber. Unlike her other voices displayed, she does not here remind me of Germano (none of the shyness or dryness); more the artlessness of Cub aspiring to circa-1960 girl-group pop confidence. In a chorus melody closely related to "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?", Mirah sings, four times in a row, "if we sleep together, will you be my friend forever?". Now, okay, she's _not_ 13 -- given her curriculum vitae, including graduation from hippie Evergreen College, several years of Seattle-area jazz singing, and two small self-run food businesses, I'm guessing at least a decade older. I also remember that when I was 12 I thought the idea of at least one particular 13-year-old girl having sex was a great idea if only she'd let me help, not that I was entirely clear on what that would entail; so I'll ignore the part of my mental stun that was simple pedophilia aversion. She's recording this in the year 2000; you can tell it's recent just from how the verses take after Soul Asylum's "Black Gold", from how the arrangement abstracts shimmering guitar into electronic phantoms as thoroughly as the much more violent efforts of My Bloody Valentine or the Jesus and Mary Chain. Does anyone really _ask_ "if we sleep together, will you be my friend forever" anymore? We're hip, prematurely wisened, we know the answer is "it improves your chances, but not near to 50/50", the same answer that applies to "if we marry". Who is this girl? What kind of record is this?
The first place to look, of course, would be "...Familia" itself. She introduces her chorus as "a question that's been tested"; so, wait, she asks despite knowing better. The song opens with "Hey, friends, you better cool down/ you always get curious and leave town"; when my 12th-grade Humanities class was asked who expected to be in the same city ten years later, exactly two of the 70+ students raised their hands, and my impression is that few of the rest will be proven wrong. The song's emotional peak -- a girlish but still breathtakingly forceful equivalent of the "Years of Wrong Impressions" bridge where the Loud Family's Alison Faith Levy suddenly turns into a soul singer -- has Mirah evangelically insisting "None of us forget about who we are/ find your path and follow it/ take your pill and swallow it". So she seems to be offering her chorus in a distressed and thoughtful defiance. Yes, we'll probably be torn apart; yes, the reason we'll probably be torn apart is that we live in a country where we have central input into our own personal destiny; yes, that's extremely lucky; but can't we try to evade the price, one nobody warned us about before the country was built? As her piercing voice fades at song's end, she repeats "forever, and ever, and ever, and ever, and ever": one of the smartest prayers I've ever heard.
Sometimes, mind you, she just sings about sex as sex, or as lying nude in the garden watching weeds grow. There's an odd hypotheticalness to those songs, usually sung to someone absent, or with the implication that "there is nothing I'd rather do/ than spend all day in the sack with you" will stay in the subjunctive tense for awhile, or that her agreement on "Murphy Bed" to try out bondage is driven more by a need for connection than by a conviction that she won't change her mind at the last minute. On the whole I find this comforting (why _should_ a 13-year-old be getting some when I'm not... oh, right, she's not 13, but then neither is Mariah Carey and I still think her songs and videos have a despicable rubbing-it-in effect for single folk). She's more comfortable singing about love and loss and friendship, and maybe I really shouldn't overestimate our generations outgrowth of old sex roles: discussing kinky sex can be fine, but "I ask you what you think of my forward questions/ is this a release or a buildup of pressure?" is still a violation of girlhood that warrants being sung in a spooky, frightened emotional disconnect.
The old role familiarity also holds enough that the love/ insecurity songs make it instinctively easier for me to relax and focus on the instrumentations: how "Engine Heart" is driven by ukekele and timpani and a monotone vocal that suddenly spirals into and out of an ambitious melody like, or how "Person Person" uses the squeaking of the guitar strings as an organized counterpart to the strumming but lets the half-dozen backing vocalists chime in at good-natured random. Or the high/low monotone autoharmonies and periodic sunburst feedback a la 2 Foot Flame on "Murphy...", or the doo-wop and shaker of "Pollen". Or how "Archipelago", the one heartbroken song (and accepting the heartbreak with a further awareness of the numerical odds she was up against), uses cello, zipper, subterranean quaking, and the scampering across a wooden floor of a cockroach with three aritificial legs. "This..." may play up its petulance, and "Sweepstakes..." may hang its devotion and even its thoughtfulness on the mockable tagline "it's simple and so complicated", but the sounds are brilliantly expressive, and who totally outgrows petulance and devotion?
My favorite moment, I think, comes during "Water and Sleep", one of her little guitar songs where the detuning effect of her sliding from one note to the next is central; there's also what seem to be tuned waterglasses. The last strum dies away to silence. After four seconds, Mirah clears her throat in an "aren't you forgetting something?" manner. Jackhammering percussion sets in, along with a waltz of industrial hum, and she starts in on an insistent melody that only slowly reveals its connection to the song as before. At which point she stops, the hammering fades out, and the next song plays. After that one comes the finale, "Words Cannot Describe", a jaunty lounge-jazz piano show tune that sounds utterly convincing for 1946. What?, it seems to shrug, did you hear something odd?
Lisa Germano is, without question, who I associate this record with: not just her voices, but the way she makes pretty music out of shadowy processed effects, or deliberate errors. Mirah also, though playing the majority of the parts herself, made extensive use of Phil Elvrum, who records his own stuff as the Microphones, whose IT WAS HOT WE STAYED IN THE WATER jumped near the top of my to-buy list when I found this out (while writing this). But unlike Lisa, Mirah sounds, so far, happy and balanced. She seeks ways to confront relationships that mostly avoid the Scylla and Charibdis of delusion or statistically-aware resignation. She seems to lead an entrepeneurial life and take pleasure in her own creativity. That she puts so much stake in relationships is a risk; I hear this album, I mentally flip to Germano's HAPPINESS and SLIDE, and I'm a bit too aware of the danger that her talent could curdle into something bitter. But there are better things in this world than keeping safe.

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