Thao and Mirah clearly like each other. When touring together, it’s less about an opener and a headliner, and more about collaboration. They play together, rework each other’s songs, sing together, create new sounds. So they come across as both close friends and great fans of each other’s music.
Thao & Mirah, our first official document from these two songwriters, celebrates that connection, although (at least in the short run) they may get overshadowed by the record’s producer. In fact, with Merrill Garbus behind the controls — and some instruments — the record is awfully timely in its release. It comes just one week after Garbus’s own tUnE-YarDs record, w h o k i l l, took the music world by storm. And from track one, you can hear her on all the best parts of this record.
That opener, “Eleven”, is also the only track co-written by Garbus, and is (perhaps unsurprisingly) the best song on the record. It’s got ramshackle percussion, buzzing synths, and Garbus’s voice adds a playful vitality to the chorus. The song sounds both perfectly composed and off-the-cuff, as immediate as it is intricate. Other moments capture that same energy, too. The horn freak-out at the end of the Mirah-lead “Rubies and Rocks” breaks up the song’s hushed chug, and closer “Squareneck” — Thao’s best offering on the record — is clattering and dusty, a scraped-out shadow to the sunburst of “Eleven” and fitting way to close the record.
It’s fitting, though, because it highlights the album’s best elements, but much of the record leaves Thao and Mirah to their own devices and the results are often solid but overly subdued. Garbus smartly takes a light touch more often than not with her production (this is, after all, not her album), and the two singers tend to fall back into comfort zones as a result. Both have sweetly hushed voices, but both also tend towards their most spare folk elements, sapping the album of energy in spots. Thao’s “Likeable Man” stands in stark contrast to the sweaty energy of her solo work, plodding along too slow to sustain its dark humor. Similarly, Mirah’s “Little Cup” clicks along pleasantly, but her lilting vocals wander aimlessly over the track.
Still, for the most part, the two songwriters represent themselves well here. They sing together on “How Dare You,” and it’s a poppy shot in the arm for the middle of the record. Like the bulk of the record, though, there’s an insularity to that song that holds it back. The best thing about all the players involved here (Garbus included) is how they reach out, with energy and emotion, to the listener. Too often Thao and Mirah sound like they’re singing to each other, so while the sounds they make are sweet, you may feel like you’re being kept at a distance. As a result, Thao & Mirah is a nice side-project for two great performers, but not as revelatory as it could have been for either of them.