Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn is blessed with a pure sweet voice, inventive songwriting chops, lyrics of subtle humor and intimacy plus one of the most charming names in rock. A graduate of the premiere finishing school for young feminist indie-rockers, Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington, she quickly found her mark as a singer of intimate folk-punk — as quietly political in her way as neighbors in the riot-grrl movement, but unafraid of pursuing emotional resonance the quiet way.
Storageland consists of 10 songs, but many of them are shorter than two minutes. Mirah really hit her stride with You Think It’s Like This but Really It’s Like This, an ingenious blend of the direct and the oblique: bald-faced declarations of love and concern, coy acknowledgements of sexual desire and little peeks inside a rich inner world. The album’s many charms include “Sweepstakes Prize,” a simple melody with a toe-tapping bassline that would be at home in a rumbling Eddie Cochran song; the quietly mesmerizing “La Familia”; and the ravishing (if unspecific) love song “Person Person,” an ode to a friend far away. Like some of her contemporaries (Erin McKeown, Shivaree’s Ambrosia Parsley, etc.), Mirah plays with wry lyrics and wordplay in the style of pre-rock cabaret singing — she has a jazz background — and the occasional nursery-rhyme stylings don’t deny the lyrics’ emotional weight. “Here’s a question that’s been tested,” she posits on one track, “If we sleep together / Would it make it any better? / If we sleep together / Would you be my friend forever?” Although the emphasis is on quirky/quiet, You Think It’s Like This isn’t all acoustic; there are buzzing and clattering electronic noises and a few noisier songs.
The Advisory Committee full-length and the concurrent Cold Cold Water EP, which recaps many of the same songs in solo acoustic renditions, demonstrate Mirah’s strengths in both the spare and the ornate. The album’s undisputed centerpiece (which appears in pared-down form on the EP that takes its title), “Cold Cold Water,” is a breathtakingly orchestrated wide-screen epic, with sweeping strings, rushing timpani and crashing cymbals — a major display of extroversion and unselfconscious grandeur from an artist who previously worked mostly in miniatures. On the full-length, the jagged “Apples in the Trees” swells into a glorious chorus about the glories of life on this Earth; the solitary strummed acoustic guitar on the EP version carries as much emotional import. “Make It Hot” could be Nina Simone by way of Elliott Smith. (Khaela Maricich of the Blow, another Olympia-Portland friend, did the Western-themed artwork on the Cold Cold Water EP.)
C’mon Miracle is unapologetically ambitious, with more guests, a broader musical template and evidence of influences from Latin America and beyond. Some of the ambition is immediately rewarding: the potent personal/political rejoinder to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in “Jerusalem” is enriched subtly by strings and electronics; “The Light” makes the most of longtime producer Phil Elvrum’s production flourishes. Argentine touches (indie tango?) from a visit to Buenos Aires enliven “The Dogs of B.A” and “Don’t Die in Me.” But at other moments, her reach outstretches her songs. The live acoustic solo performance of a heartrending (and sexually frank) breakup ballad, “We’re Both So Sorry,” carries more weight than the overly fussy production on the album, with its double-tracked vocals and overt musical gadgetry. But all in all, C’mon Miracle offers the most depth and breadth in Mirah’s discography to date.
College Park Is Always Ready to Party is a live solo album; Joyride is an unusual — and not wholly successful — remix album of Mirah tracks. Participants include Elvrum (credited as Mt. Eerie, his current band name), the Blow and others from the Olympia scene and beyond. Like many indie remix records, it’s less in the direction of dance records than an experiment in imposing the strictures of laptop-pop and a variety of dance subgenres on Mirah’s intimate little songs. To their credit, the producers generally don’t track her singing onto generic beats and stretch them out club-style; they let a lot of the indie quirks shine through. Some of the tracks lean toward accessibility; some turn the welcoming songs foreboding. A twinkling version of “La Familia” is chiming and singsongy, but the “Chopped and Screwed” mix of “Jerusalem” is a painful dirge. The ominous clattering rendition of “Cold Cold Water” could win you bets in a Björk soundalike contest. The double CD is barely 80 minutes long, with enough chaff that it should have been a single.
In classic K tradition, Mirah appears on records by many of her friends, and has released a few collaborations, including the 29-minute Songs From the Black Mountain Music Project with Ginger Brooks Takahashi and guests. If the record sounds like something that could have been written and recorded in a hurry by a few friends in a mountain cabin, that’s because it was. This mostly improvisational album doesn’t carry much weight beyond the lovely “Pure” and “Oh! September,” which features the goofy yet endearing exhortation, “Let’s make a song on the 8-track tonight.” To All We Stretch the Open Arm is a collection of politically themed covers (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Foster) along with a few Mirah tunes that appear in other formats on her own albums. Neither is essential.
Strictly in terms of conceptual breadth, it’s hard to get higher-concept than an album about insects produced in cooperation with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Seattle International Children’s Festival, honoring the work of a French entomologist and the Insect Play by the brothers Čapek (as in Karel Čapek). Share This Place: Stories and Observations is an extended ode to the insect world, extolling its virtues of cooperation and diligence and duty in contrast with our own. It’s a delightful record, both surprising and fun in its topic matter, and as musically sophisticated and well-played as any in Mirah’s catalogue. Somewhere between indie-folk and chamber-pop, with a variety of Balkan and Middle Eastern touches, it offers elegant listening with a host of entertaining lyrical touches.