Phumes

What's left when the show is over..

Miranda Lee Richards

Title:

Light of X

Artist:

Released:

2009

Label:

Nettwerk

Reviewer:

Mark Lewno

Recording:

Production:

Writing:

Performance:

Anticipation...

It's been a VERY long time since I've awaited a new release by an artist as much as I've looked forward to Miranda Lee Richard's Light of X. I discovered her 2001 debut The Herethereafter almost by accident, and it's been in heavy rotation ever since. The Herethereafter was one of those debut albums that got everything right. The writing, performance, arrangements and production were just so spot on, and the work was such a breath of fresh air, that I couldn't wait to find out what Miranda had in store for us next.

The Early November EP

When the Early November EP was released only on iTunes, I faced a huge dilemma. I have nothing against digital storage (the majority of our collection is on hard drives, and we have massive boxes of CD's that got ripped and stored), but I just can't handle encoding choices that sacrifice the quality for disc space.

As a result, I'd sworn a solemn vow to myself to NEVER, EVER buy anything off iTunes as a result. That promise was held from the day the iTunes Music store opened, up until about 25 seconds after I found out Early November was ONLY available on ITMS.

I went positively scrambling for my credit card in my mad rush to pick up these new unknown nuggets of audio goodness. There was new Miranda stuff out, and by God, I was going to check it out come hell or high water. Early November got several listens prior to my review copy of Light of X's arrival.

Now, the Early November EP is really a subset of Light of X, so I'm not going to cover the EP here, although I do need to mention there IS a track on Early November that (oddly) didn't make it onto Light of X. So for you fellow "complete catalog" freaks out there, it's well worth buying (256 kbps AAC be damned) to get your hands on Sunday Morning, which I personally consider the unofficial 14th track on the 12 track Light of X. You read that right, I'll explain in a bit.

Light of X

The night my review copy of Light of X arrived, I trudged home, CD in hand and fired up the studio monitors. 40 seconds into Breathless, whatever fears I'd had that Miranda may have fallen victim to the dreaded sophomore release syndrome vanished. Like The Herethereafter, Light of X really requires a dedicated serious listen (actually several) to "get".

Not content to put out a "More Herethereafter" 2nd release, on Light of X Miranda explores a markedly different sonic turf. Rick Parker's back at the helm on the production side of things, and contributes a good deal of his excellent guitar work as well. The elements that made The Herethereafter so outstanding are still there, but they're all grown up. There's a sense of progression, subtlety and refinement throughout Light of X that is difficult to put your finger on. With several years since The Herethereafter's release, Miranda's had some time to live, grow, and deal with life and it really shows in this work.

Make no mistake, this one can be just as trippy as the first release, but in a markedly different way. Where Miranda and Rick had their formidable writing and production chops pretty much in your face on The Herethereafer, on Light of X there's a sense that they're totally comfortable letting you go ferret them out. The work is every bit as good, just a hell of a lot more refined.

There's noticeably more space in the mix, and the arrangements have a certain sparseness to them, but every detail has had a massive amount of attention and scrutiny paid to it.

The whole effect is familiar yet different. Where The Herethereafter was a delightfully dizzying trip in "the just right" borderline near excess, Light of X is a glorious exercise in refinement.

On several tracks, like Life Boat, Rick's production technique of pushing the foldback on the delay used on Miranda's vocals becomes an instrument unto itself, often almost "trading licks" with Ben Peeler's masterfully crafted pedal steel work.

The "trick" ending of Hideaway is another great example of Rick's refinements in the production department. While populated with multiple interlaced guitar and mandolin parts, the subtle transition to Miranda's repeated descending piano line and the end pitch drop is an unexpected and wonderful surprise.

One of the things that's so unusual about Rick's guitar work on both Light of X and The Herethereafter is that all the parts are in utter support of the song, rather than the all too common "let me show you my riffs" approach. There's no question he HAS the chops, as evidenced in several places where instead of playing along with Miranda's melodies, he goes off in a totally different direction, yet it still really works with the main melody of the vocals and doesn't detract from the song. This is a really rare skill that many guitar players never acquire, as it requires really hearing the song as a whole, rather than a vehicle to solo over.

Miranda's writing has progressed markedly as well. On The Herethereafter we caught glimpses of her string compositional prowess, and on Light of X that's been brought front and center. Touches of strings are peppered throughout Light of X, but Hidden Treasure is a simply gorgeous showcase of her abilities.

Miranda's vocals have an added sense of authority and power to them we didn't see on The Herethereafter, as evidenced by the delivery of "Shine shine shine" at the end of Here By The Window. The last chorus of Mirror at the End really stands out as well, sung with a range and power that drive the sadness and sense of utter isolation in the words home with a huge emotional impact.

Ben Peeler's spot on pedal steel work appears throughout the album. Like Rick, every part is masterfully played, and is just what the song needs. No more, no less. In some cases, it's just a few notes, like a master chef's application of seasoning.

Mazzy Star's Keith Mitchell and long time Rick Parker cohort John Wilmer contribute most of the drum tracks on Light of X. Wilmer's exquisite brush work on Life Boat is a thing of beauty.

The Mars Volta, P!nk, Veruca Salt and Tim Burgess veteran Eva Gardner handles the majority of Light of X's bass work, and a small cadre of equally talented players fill out the remaining chairs in the release.

Lyrically, Light of X offers an often darker selection of subject matters than we saw on The Herethereafter.  While there were examples of her ability to tackle difficult life issues (I Know What It's Like and Seven Hours come to mind) with a surprising maturity and awareness, Light of X is chock full of the inner nuances of life's harder moments.

Whether she's addressing someone's child going off to war (That Baby), the pain of having grown beyond the other in a relationship (Hidden Treasure), watching on the sidelines as someone caves in to life (Mirror at the End), or doomed to fail from the start relationships (Pictures of You), Miranda's words never take the easy path out through anger or resentment. There's always this sense of awareness that engenders a kindness and understanding unusual in other works on these subjects. As a result, Light of X is an amazingly serene album to listen to, thanks to Miranda's spectacular vocal deliveries.

And now, about that aforementioned 13th "hidden" track. The Oddity was also on the Early November EP, but doesn't show on Light of X aside from the musician credits. The Oddity closes out Light of X, tacked on after some silence to The Last Days of Summer. After bedazzling us with 12 songs of amazing production, writing, playing and Miranda's beautiful vocals, The Oddity is a way off the deep end divergence from the rest of the work. This very stripped down and dark spoken word piece acts as a "just when you thought you had me figured, check this out" closer to Light of X that's even more different from the rest of Light of X than Light of X is different from The Herethereafter.

When it's all said and done, Light of X is a brilliant work, especially considering how amazing The Herethereafter was. While I was almost hoping for a "more of" follow up to her first release, I'm thrilled by the direction Miranda has taken with Light of X. It's one that will be in heavy rotation for a very long time to come.
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