By Gabriel Mathews
It’s always nice to get a little taste of the Northwest down here. It’s why I stop by Seattle export Caffe Vita every once in a while for a shot of homegrown espresso. It’s why I’m always excited when a customer’s phone number reveals their PDX roots. And it’s why I really like the Satellite, whose bookers have got to be Portland expats or something. The last time I was here, the DJ played most of Friend and Foe between sets by The Wild Ones and Typhoon. This time around, we’ve got AgesAndAges and Mirah, almost a more adorable lineup than the last one.
AgesAndAges are a decent band. I really don’t know much about them aside from the fact that they’re from Portland, that they’re pretty cute, and that their percussionist/vocalist Sarah Riddle very talented person I’ve known my whole life. These guys layer six-part harmonies over most of their songs, throw in a variety of cute percussion flourishes, and generally seem to be having a really nice time up there on stage. Their banter was sweet and charming, and frontman Tim Perry can definitely write some nice melodies, and the always amazing soundwork at The Satellite did this band a lot of favors by keeping their sound as crisp as crisp could be. But if I’m being honest, I was rarely moved by their set. The songs blended together, and the overall mood was definitely not the anti-establishment revolution Perry says their new album Divisionary is all about. I also felt that there was just too much of the harmonizing, too much of the percussion gimmicks. These songs would really benefit from some diversity and dynamic shifts. All partiality aside, Riddle might be the best reason to see this band, as her collection of shakers and tambourines is astounding and played with skill, and her voice stands out in the crowded field.
Then there was Mirah, who’s long been one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Whether she’s doing her cutesy K Records shtick on de facto debut You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This, sophisticatedly lamenting the impending doom of Mother Earth on 2009’s (a)spera, or collaborating with/dating Thao of and the Get Down Stay Down fame on 2011’s Thao + Mirah. No matter what she does, Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn does it with class and one of the most beguilingly beautiful voices of modern indie.
I’d never gotten the chance to see Mirah before this show, so I didn’t know what to expect —was she going to play a solo acoustic set? Would there be a string ensemble? Would someone show up to play that amazing harp thing on “Shells”? Would—my God—would Phil Elverum be there?! No, no, no, and no. Mirah was joined on stage by a wildly talented percussionist (who bounced effortlessly between drums and vibraphone), a wildly talented violinist/keyboardist/backing vocalist, and a dude on bass and guitar who I assume was wildly talented as well but just didn’t have a lot to do. Mirah herself stuck almost entirely to voice and guitar, which is perfectly fine by me.
While the set was by and large enchanting, and the sound quality remained amazing, with no unnecessary reverb cluttering Mirah’s stripped down beauty, the crowd generally seemed to disagree. Maybe I was standing too far back, but I often had trouble making out words to the songs off forthcoming album Changing Light (her first solo record since ’09!) over the whining of the girl behind me about how tired she was and when would the show be over and can I just fall asleep on your shoulder? The low level din of the crowd was not only obnoxious and distracting, but confounding—Mirah’s music demands reverential silence, what were these assholes doing here if they weren’t willing to give it?
Then there was the setlist—I suppose it makes sense to play mostly new material when your last real record is five years old, but this set was so dominated by new stuff that I couldn’t help but be sad about not hearing classics like, say, “Don’t Die In Me,” “Cold Cold Water,” “Education,” “The River,” “Look Up!” . . . I could go on. On top of the overall lack of older material, the selections from her back catalog that Mirah did play were a bit confounding, generally pulling what I consider to be the weaker songs from each of her older albums. (a)spera was represented by setopener “Bones & Skin,” which is good, but not great, unlike pretty much all of the rest of that record. Her arguably best album, C’mon Miracle, got it’s arguably worst song with “The Dogs of B.A.” Advisory Committee managed to escape this fate when she closed the set with the amazing “Mt. St. Helens,” which she peppered with commentary about how beautiful it was that we were all bonding over lines such as “There’s no welcome in the end/There’s no reason to return again.” After a set characterized mainly by tasteful restraint, the distorted final third of “Mt. St. Helens” was a joyous release. Then there was adorably ’50s closer “Words Cannot Describe,” from You Think It’s Like This, which was fun and all, and featured Mirah prancing around the stage like a young Shirley Temple, but, I mean, come on. “Sweepstakes Prize”? “Person Person”? I dunno.
The other puzzling thing was that the album getting the most representation after Changing Light was Thao + Mirah. This is odd not just because I consider T+M to be generally kind of weak, but because Changing Light is a selfproclaimed breakup album, presumably about Thao. (“Presumably” because the album features collaborations with Greg Saunier, Mary Timony, Heather McEntire, Emily Wells, Jherek Bischoff, Eli Crews, and Mirah’s own sister Emily, but not Thao Nguyen.) That said, “Little Cup” was gorgeous, “Rubies & Rocks” was fun, and “Hallelujah” was heartbreaking. I should probably give that album another listen.
I should also say that I’m really not complaining about hearing all the Changing Light material, because it was all really good. Lead single “Oxen Hope” might be one of the most interesting compositions Mirah’s ever done, with a minimal, syncopated drumbeat, and, live, a shrieking distorted violin solo, which Mirah doubled on keyboard to awesome effect. The recorded version of the song even has some Autotune-esque vocal manipulation, which was emulated by backing vocals live. As I don’t know the titles of the other songs I heard, I can’t say much about standouts, but it’s clear that we’re all in for a really, really sad treat when this album drops in May.