Graded on a Curve:
Arjan Miranda,
Spiritual America

The mingling of mysticism and rock can make for an occasionally uncomfortable pairing, but when it’s done right, specifically when the blend unfurls naturally and is not forced, the results can rise to the sublime. In its best moments, the new record from vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Arjan Miranda attains this plateau, with the high points frequent and any problematic dips downright scarce. Spiritual America is the first release on his own label The Wild Unknown; it’s out now on vinyl in an edition of 1,000 with a highly attractive hand-drawn fold-out poster.

Arjan Miranda is probably better known for his participation in the Family Band, where he went under the name Jonny Ollsin. Alongside vocalist Kim Krans and bassist/ lap steel player Scott Hirsch, they specialized in a strain of neo-folk with psych trimmings that was likely to appeal to fans of Cowboy Junkies, Cat Power, and New Zealand’s The Renderers. In 2008, they self-released the “Blessed” EP on CDR, with the Miller Path LP following two years later, but it was 2012’s Grace & Lies that made the biggest splash through its emergence on the No Quarter label.

They dubbed their sound “heavy mellow,” and that registers as right on the money. It was certainly a far cry from the undeniably non-laidback approach of his early ’00s band Skateboarding Totally Rules Everything Else Totally Sucks, or S.T.R.E.E.T.S. for short (who, it should go without saying, played skate-rock), or for that matter Children, who issued the hard-charging metallic Hard Times Hanging at the End of the World on Kemado on ’09.

Still, don’t think the heavy in “heavy mellow” is in any way wishful thinking; Grace & Lies is the sort of record one wouldn’t be surprised to find a partisan of art-metal unwinding to after a long day of pummel, doom, and sludge. The choice of producer for Spiritual America retains this quality; having shifted coasts to Portland, OR, taking a considerable break from public music making, and coming back with a fresh moniker, Miranda hooked up with Randall Dunn, he of extensive work with Earth and Sunn O))).

But please don’t misconstrue Miranda’s first solo album as some sort of covert metal exercise; it’s just that the unabashed spiritualism on display here gets accompanied with varying levels of sonic heft, making this a distinct strain of “heavy mellow,” and in a few spots full-on heavy, especially during side two’s sixteen-minute title track. In the same vein, opener “Endlessly” begins with a short but attention-grabbing gust of reeds before settling into a zone somewhere betwixt My Morning Jacket and the Radar Bros.

The former comparison has a lot to do with the timbre of Miranda’s voice, while the latter concerns pacing. Although not accurately pegged as slow-core, the track does explore an unhurried progression that simultaneously glides and hits hard for over six minutes. It becomes evident rather quickly that Miranda likes to stretch out, with all but one of the first side’s cuts nearing or exceeding five minutes, these durations allowing for journeys into unexpected areas.

For instance, “The Leaves” transitions from a quite pretty, and again, leisurely moving, folk fragility toward a warm and increasingly agitated saxophone solo from Jonathan Sielaff, and then back again. Matters don’t get any quicker with “Poltergeist,” but there is ample variety, as corroded ’80s-esque keyboard tones (John Carpenter fans should be pleased) pulse and wash over the proceedings; later in the track, Kim Krans’ vocals enter the fray, contributing both trad backing and some swell operatic atmospheres as the intensity of the whole subtly builds.

For those missing the Family Band, please note that Krans takes the lead on “Fire and Ice,” and it’s a nice side-closing treat. However, just as importantly, the instrumental palette continues to widen, integrating horn squawk, electric piano, and vibes, along with stabs, ripples, and sustained notes on keyboard that lend a ripe strain of psychedelia.

Sitting between “Poltergeist” and “Fire and Ice” is “Golden Hair,” the record’s most concise number, getting substantially tribal amid tuneful strum and vintage synth/ keyboard that’s a touch reminiscent of the spacier moments from Lothar & the Hand People. To offer a somewhat less obscure reference, it also conjures thoughts of early ’70s Floyd, without being too obvious about it.

Even better is the multifaceted lack of self-indulgence of “Spiritual America” as it stretches across the entire second side, traversing the heavy landscape mentioned above, infusing it with more ’80s soundtracky keyboards, and after hitting peak intensity, taking a bigger plunge into the spacy zone established in “Golden Hair.”

Later, the tide turns considerably and rewardingly cinematic. Too much spiritually inclined stuff never gets beyond surface gestures, but Miranda goes deep while keeping a handle on ingredients and execution that’s worth the effort of a simple listen. As a solo debut and the kick-start of a new label, Spiritual America is a resounding success.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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