Artist: Holly Miranda
Label: XL Recordings
The album art for Holly Miranda's solo debut Magician's Private Library may only seem appropriate for about the first 30 seconds of opening track "Forest Green Oh Forest Green." Still though, the image of the slumbering young girl lingers. For as many times as the collection bursts into majestic shows of emotion-- either through Miranda's dusky voice or the bevy of instrumentation brought in by producer Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio)-- you're never expecting it. But that's what carries this album. Surprises-- from the unexpectedness of the effort's strong showing, to the hints at TVotR's influence and Miranda's ability to keep a dreamy pop record engaging for listeners.
Emotionally, Miranda maintains a stoic resolve of sorts. Her voice never wavers, never stresses in her most intense moments and even her happily sentimental selections ("Sleep On Fire") appear only with reserved reverence. Yet, the point is still conveyed effectively. In this regard, at least some of the credit goes out to Sitek. Miranda's looks and voice may speak for themselves, but what she needed to really set her act apart was an expert arranger, and stunning production. The Regina Spektors, Leslie Feists and Jenny Lewises of the world are immensely talented vocally, which is why all comparisons for indie-type female artists fall to them. However, in Miranda's case, her strong vocals become a compliment to the even stronger horns and orchestration. Sometimes she soars above the sounds around her, while at others, the instrumentation arrives at the front. But regardless of where it's located, you get most of your cues as to subject matter and mood from her accompaniment. They're the guide to the whole piece of work, and to focus more closely on lyrical content might be to ignore the most important part.
That being said, it doesn't necessarily mean that Magician's Private Library lacks popular appeal. While lead single "Forest Green Oh Forest Green" may only serve to display the full range of the album's talents prior to its release, tracks like "Waves" and "Sweet Dreams" also play off of some popular norms. Part of this comes from her time with The Jealous Girlfriends, who've found themselves on Grey's Anatomy twice. So she's no stranger to what creates or maintains pop appeal. But here, there's more of an unassuming air about it. Cascading horns and cooing echoes make it seem like the songs don't want to be hits outside of the construct of the album. Rather, these songs are more interested in simply existing in the confines of it all. It's a conflict that forms on any record with even a remotely broad appeal really-- there are always those tracks which seemed destined for radio play, or whatever the case may be. Due to a lack of music sales over the past decade, and listener's increasing tolerance for track licensing though, how an artist deals with these potential hits has become less of a hot topic for fans. Nonetheless, you usually know whether a song was meant to be a single, or an album track.
The album's dreamy nature comes from various sources. Miranda's dusky voice does a nice job of evoking nighttime imagery right off the bat. Plus, there are also the three tracks named for sleep in some way ("Sweet Dreams," "Everytime I Go to Sleep" and "Sleep on Fire"). And of course, the intricacies of the underlying keyboard, auxiliary percussion and appearance of soothing strings factor in as well. Mixing them all together, what results is Miranda's narration of either her life or another, through sleep. You see bouts with idealism, realization, and settling with oneself the things you want and need most. Parts may seem like a nightmare ("No One Just Is"), while "Sleep On Fire" seems to walk us out of the scene, either propelling us forward, or bringing us back to the start. I guess in hindsight, it ends up that the album cover is appropriate for the collection's entirety. The girl sleeps soundly amidst danger, but the arrows all miss her, and thus she remains safe-- a perfect symbol for the underlying narrative.
Miranda's Magician's Private Library floats, shimmers and at times, even cascades through its motions. The waves in which it moves range from delicate to turbulent, much like life, yet in the end, our narrator comes out all the better, and maybe with more perspective, too. One could definitely see why Kanye West enjoyed her music so much last year, as he himself usually tries to learn more through music (see 808s and Heartbreak). For those looking for a soothing and fresh artist, who strikes a near-perfect balance between reservedness and ambition, Holly Miranda may be your new obsession.
[Previously on Animal Noises: John's Track of the Week: Holly Miranda's "Forest Green Oh Forest Green"]