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Mirah - (a)spera

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Artist: Mirah

Album: (a)spera

Label: K

Review date: Feb. 26, 2009

Mirah’s songs have always fallen somewhere between a caress and a snap, her biting clever words woven around achingly soft melodies, her love songs skewered with unblinking, sometimes lacerating, observations. There is a precision in her best relationship songs that makes you sure they are about specific people, even as you draw parallels with your own experience. C’mon Miracle in 2004 diverged slightly from this type of material, as she tried her hand at geopolitics and religion. With this fourth solo full-length, she’s back to her home territory, observing interpersonal relationships with seductive charm and wicked clarity. There is no “Jerusalem” in (a)spera.

Yet while (a)spera focuses on the bonds and obstacles between people, it reflects a changing, perhaps maturing perspective. “Generosity,” the first song on the album, might be about the death of a parent or the disintegration of a love affair – it is clearly concerned with ends, rather than beginnings. Its swooning violin and cello, its cooling breeze of whispered oohs, none of this can entirely mask the smell of frustration. Indeed the piece ends with Mirah in exhausted contention with herself. “I won’t give more,” she sings, and is answered by a chorus of herself singing “We want more.”

Mortality makes more overt appearances later in the album, serving as the main theme in some of Mirah’s most beautiful compositions. Death is implied in a delicate couplet that opens “Bones and Skin” (“If you live inside the old graveyard / your skin and bones get kind of hard / you blame it on all of the ones who left you”) and embedded in the xylophoned atmospherics of “While We Have the Sun.” (“And if you want to face the death / you’re never that far from / just take a breath and sing to it when all the day is done.”) It is, perhaps, one of Mirah’s great strengths that she can couch the heaviest of subject matters in songs that feel as light as air.

Longtime producer Phil Elverum returns for (a)spera, overseeing three tracks “The World Is Falling Apart,” “Shells” and “Bones & Skin,” while Tucker Martin and Adam Selzer of Norfolk & Western handle four and three each, respectively. Elverum’s tracks tend to have his characteristic aura, a calmness that breathes and hums with natural life. Other frequent collaborators – percussionist Bryce Panic and cellist Lori Goldsten – are back as well. Tara Jane O’Neil, who plays guitar and bass on three tracks and Chris Funk from the Decemberists picking up odd instruments – octave mandolin, dobro, hurdy gurdy and hammer dulcimer – on two.

Certainly not all of (a)spera is a downer. Samba percussion lights a fire under pizzicato “Country of the Future,” while nostalgic “Gone Are the Days” swaggers with New Orleans funeral march bravado. “Shells” luxuriates in a rain of kora notes, played by Kane Mathis, each tone softly percussive but rounded with reverberation. And throughout, Mirah picks her soft, knowing way through songs that soothe even as they challenge. Her melodies curl gently up into question marks, as she asks you to make sense of life and love and loss.

By Jennifer Kelly

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