Graded on a Curve:
Mirah, “Sundial” EP

In 2016, Mirah was asked by Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts/Media House to create a show for their spring season. After enlisting friend Jherek Bischoff to provide string arrangements for a batch of her songs, that event blossomed into a tour with a live string quartet, and now here’s an EP to further document the collaboration. Featuring one new piece and six reinterpretations from her ample back catalog, “Sundial” is out now on clear vinyl and digital through Mirah’s own Absolute Magnitude Records.

Although she emerged as a byproduct of the ’90s lo-fi indie scene as part of the K Records roster, Mirah (full name Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn) is no stranger to string sections. 2000’s You Think It’s Like This but Really It’s Like This is easily the most aurally stripped down full-length in her discography, but even as its strength of songwriting and execution established a solo framework, a penchant for collaboration, namely with Phil Elvrum of The Microphones, was already apparent.

Those strings entered the picture via the Morricone-esque “Cold Cold Water,” which opened her 2002 follow-up Advisory Committee, a record of substantial growth that put the kibosh on any lo-fi pigeonholing. The desire for musical give-and-take bloomed on 2003’s Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project, cut by Mirah and Ginger Brooks Takahashi in a house in the Blue Ridge Mountains using a Tascam four-track and a mini disc recorder, and on ’04’s To All We Stretch the Open Arm, which teamed her with Seattle’s Black Cat Orchestra for a covers-heavy, politically themed set.

Black Mountain emphasized experimentation with a few pop nuggets thrown in (especially the infectious call to good times “Oh! September”), and To All We Stretch traversed an expansively folky avenue. They joined with her prior discs to accentuate a personality resistant to being pinned down. Subsequently, there was 2004’s solo high-point C’mon Miracle, the ’06 2CD Joyride: Remixes, and the following year’s Share This Place: Stories and Observations, a collab with Spectratone International, an outfit that featured Black Cat Orchestra’s Lori Goldston.

It was through Goldston that Mirah met Jherek Bischoff. “Sundial” isn’t their first time working together, but the EP’s seven tracks certainly cement the relationship, radiating chamber qualities that’re neither precious in the manner familiar from scads of indie also-rans nor stern or dry with seriousness of intent. Instead, the gist is welcoming, warm, mature, and peppered with surprise.

The title track is the new song mentioned above, opening the set with an approach that simultaneously scales back and brightens the thrust of her last couple albums, ‘09’s (a)spera and ’14’s Changing Light. Mirah’s attractively sturdy voice is bold in the mix, the directness of address helping the musical shifts, from strings to wordless vocal interplay to keyboard to guitar and then back to strings for the finale, register as subtle in under three minutes.

“Sundial” begins the EP on a positive note, but the reinterpretations sustain a succinct journey that’s more than merely satisfactory. “The World is Falling Apart” is originally from (a)spera, where it thrives on understated electronic atmosphere, but here the strings, both plucked and bowed, intensify the aura of the personal.

The singer-songwriter-ish flair extends into “Oxen Hope.” On Changing Light, the song’s essentially a showcase for Mirah’s considerable vocal prowess, and while the conversational swagger is still evident here, the singing deftly intermingles with the instrumentation, with the short group-vocal bursts delivering an unexpected treat.

Even better is the opportunity to hear “Cold Cold Water” in a non-spaghetti western context, unwinding in its place a baroque pop excursion where the ambitiousness of song and arrangement are approximately equal. Bluntly, this is a rare thing, as in most instances strings are utilized to prop up tunes.

From there, a fresh take of “Little Cup,” previously heard on 2010’s Thao & Mirah, her duo album with Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, unfurls as a standout, neither scaling-back or laterally adjusting but gradually transforming an already nifty song, particularly in the upswing of Bischoff’s arrangement near the end.

On Changing Light, “Fleetfoot Ghost” is a jewel of intimate folkiness, and one could perhaps mentally paint in chamber backing to override the track’s minimal accompaniment. Thankfully, the version here is no radical departure, and the strings complement the tune in a manner at once expected and remarkable for its non-ostentatious depth.

The record closes with maybe it’s boldest maneuver, as “The Light” from C’mon Miracle is cut in half and its decidedly indie ambiance remodeled into a sweet slice of string-driven art-pop. It and the whole of “Sundial” are representative of Mirah’s career trajectory; confident enough to stand alone, open to collaboration and disdainful of stasis. It’s a tidy little pleasure of new angles on familiar themes.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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