Phumes

What's left when the show is over..

Miranda Lee Richards

Title:

The Herethereafter

Artist:

Released:

2001

Label:

Virgin

Reviewer:

Mark Lewno

Recording:

Production:

Writing:

Performance:

Acquiring a Treasure

Most of the artists who's work I've come to appreciate have usually been brought to my attention on the part of recommendations by friends I know, and who's opinions I've grown to trust.

However, every once in a while, (and more and more it seems to be longer and longer between them) you discover an artist by fate.  Such it was with Miranda Lee Richard's 2001 debut album The Herethereafter.

About a year and a half back, I was scouring the web trying once again to find a copy of the (then) elusive and practically impossible to find Heather Nova's "Redbird".   It proved to be a lucky day, as not only did I score Redbird, but at the bottom under the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section was The Herethereafter.  Now I'm pretty familiar with most of the artists who show up under Heather, but I'd never heard of Miranda.

As it turns out, sadly, most of the rest of the world hadn't either.

A few Googles later, and I didn't have much more to go on, but I had uncovered some tidbits:

She was a San Fran native, her Dad was the guy behind The 40 Year Old Hippy, and her Mom was behind Wimmin's Comics (betraying my age here) in the 70's. Furthermore, her first guitar teacher was none other than Kirk Hammett (of Metallica fame, for those who've never ventured outside of the Jam Band genre).  

Finally, she'd done some studio collaboration stuff with Tim Burgess (of the Charlatans UK, who my wife turned me onto eons ago).  With that bizarre combination of musical and cultural DNA to draw on, I thought, this REALLY ought to be interesting, and worth a shot.

Unable to find a new release I punched the "Buy It Now" on half.com. The disc arrived prior to Redbird, and my first listen was while I was rewiring a patch bay on my guitar rack.  Now this was my first mistake.  When I'm working on stuff, I'm not really giving it my full attention, and if you've never heard her before, and manage to land this disc, do yourself a favor and just set aside the time to do nothing BUT listen to it.

However, despite being distracted, I liked it a lot on first listen, but it was in the same frame of mind you get when you're doing anything that requires your attention. It just comes across as pleasant background music.  As a result, I didn't REALLY "get" it for a couple months, which is probably the single biggest problem with The Herethereafter.  You have to really dig in and discover the the stuff, because Miranda has this remarkable talent for understatement that requires an attentive mind to catch.  However, once you do, it's an incredible trip down the rabbit hole.  

Since then, I've gone back to find more about her work, and every listener review I've read parallels my experience with this remarkable debut.  In nearly every case this album has risen to the "all time favorite" status of those who have taken the plunge, and like everyone else, it wasn't long before The Herethereafter had risen to the top of my rotation.  

Between my wife and I we have literally thousands of album's, and as a result, most of my "favorites" maybe get played a small handful of times during the course of a year. In my case, The Herethereafter had become an addiction.  I began squirreling away time when I could indulge my little guilty pleasure of spinning the entire album from beginning to end without ANY interruptions.

That has been the case with practically everybody I've been able to convince into sitting through the album. Regardless of one's musical background, tastes, and preconceptions, there's some incredibly rare magic happening in this work that just defies description.  Yet describe it I must, and I hope it's possible to do without resorting to an endless sea of superlatives, although I fear my paltry command of language is going to fail miserably in the process.

To do so, this will require a bit of a sidebar detour in how I think about studio releases.

Mark's Criteria:

There's a myriad of different types of studio albums I listen to.  You have your "ear candy" albums, which is an odd subset that crosses all genres of music which are just immaculately well recorded. These are the albums that hardcore audiophiles break out when they are demoing the latest über high end component of their system.  People who have products in their homes with names like Krell, Levinson, Cello, Manley, Magnepan, Duntech Sovereigns, and Sota know exactly what I'm describing.  It's music that you may not even LIKE the genre or style of, but it's so wonderfully recorded that it wrings every last bit of performance out of a system painstakingly built in perpetual pursuit of the unobtainable audio perfection.

There are albums that are just brilliantly produced.  They're so well crafted in the arrangements and choices of instrumentation, that even when poorly recorded and engineered, the layering of the songs just completely transcend any technical flaws they may have in the engineering ends of things.  The trick here is to know how to not overproduce, and it's a rare talent indeed that knows when enough is exactly enough.  

Then there are albums where the musicianship is impeccable.  Not in the sense of "chops tour de force", but rather where the musicians in question have matured enough in their respective arenas, that they've reached the point that what isn't played can have more impact than what is, and what is played is exactly what the song needs rather than an exercise in self indulgent noodling.

Another aspect I consider is the vocals. The tonal quality of vocals on a album are arguably the one thing that can't be learned, unlike mastering a chosen instrument . Sure, you can develop techniques for hitting pitches, apply clever bits of music theory to maximize the effectiveness of your range, tweeze timings and melodies, but the actual timbre of the voice is something determined by forces completely outside one's control. And therein lies a good portion of the magic when a given voice with the right words joins the bed of instrumentation created to support the song.

And that brings us to lyrics, which Miranda sagely chooses to use the term "words" for. To me, a really great studio effort marries the words in such a way that they are inextricably intertwined with the music to the point where one can't tell where the music ends and the lyrics begin.

To me, the holy grail of the never ending search for the ultimate studio effort is a complete intersection of all those attributes. And while there are lots of great albums I've had the good fortune to encounter in my life, very, very few fire on all those cylinders.

The Herethereafter is one of the extremely small handful in my collection that approaches that incredibly difficult to achieve case of having all those factors collide, approaching perfection itself.

The acid test for me is my wife.  We have markedly dissimilar tastes in music, and while there is some overlap (like the aforementioned Charlatans) she's far more into most of the stuff that rolled out of Factory back in the day and I tend to hover in The Dead, DMB, MMJ, Tea Leaf Green, and Umphrey's sort of camps.

Now, at some point I started badgering my wife to get her to sit down and give this thing a proper listen, which was hugely resisted for the better part of six months, because she knows what I "usually" listen to, and it's just not her thing.  

Finally one night, I dragged her upstairs via much browbeating, and practically forced her to sit through the entire album.  After "The Beginner" and during the silence between "The Long Goodbye" and "Folkin' Hell", she uttered:  "This is the most amazing stuff I've heard in better than 10 years.  Seriously.  This is absolutely incredible".   The rest of the album was periodically accompanied by utterances from my wife along the lines of "holy shit", "that's just brilliant", and "who the hell is this person and why haven't I heard of her?"

Indeed.

By the end her first spin of the album, I knew I wasn't on crack and this wasn't just a fluke on my part that I "got it".

Since then, I've sent the album home with a number of musician friends and hard core music heads and they all have raved about this release. A vocalist friend (very talented in his own right) has told me he's afraid he's going to physically wear the CD out. There has been one exception, my brother, who measures everything to an absolutely impossible standard, and even he "liked" it. Given a few more spins, I'm sure it's only a matter of time and the light will go on. He didn't think much of My Morning Jacket the first time we saw them either.

So what IS The Herethereafter?

For starters, there's Miranda's vocals. There's a not too twangy country feeling, airy yet lush quality to them. They're surrounded by genuinely clever writing and arrangements. Revolver era Beatles influences abound, not so much in the writing, but in the production and engineering homage's that crop up throughout.

However, it's also thoroughly modern, yielding some of the best examples of what can be done in the today's studios in the hands of somebody who knows how to push the gear.

And make no doubt, the massively talented producer Rick Parker pushed the gear. Prior to this album, I'd never heard of the guy. I suspect this won't be the last we hear of from Rick.

Even though The Herethereafter was a "major label" release, the mix isn't squashed to hell and back like so much of what's destined for FM radio. The majority of what we hear these days gets stuffed through multiband frequency dependent compression in Pro Tools, and you end up with the soul of the music compromised for the sake of radio readiness (one of the big mastering sins).

And our girl can really sing too. As one who generally abhors pitch correction tools for their removal of the soul of the voice, it's nice to hear tracks where the vocals haven't been subjected to that particular bit grinder.

That said, on several tracks, there's fairly extensive treatments of instruments and vocals alike, although for the most part the processing stops shy of gimmicky. It kind of makes me wonder if James & Crew from MMJ heard any of Miranda's work prior to recording "Z".

That brings me to yet another of the things I just love about this album. The arrangements pull references of myriads of genre's so effortlessly, it's almost like having a whole band full of Henry Butler caliber folks on board. The result is just a delight from start to finish, as the fusion of the elements creates songs that are oddly familiar and simultaneously unlike anything else I've ever heard.

Lots of Rick's clever production bits abound. The introduction of album (as in vinyl) groove noise at 3:40 into "I Know What It's Like" is brilliant in it's subtlety.

Really good flange is spinkled about the mixes in various places, and is really tastily done. I'm a huge flange fan, but ONLY when it's done right, and these Rick has it done nailed. It's MXR Blueface model 126 type super yummy flange so brilliantly mixed that it doesn't overwhelm the track, the omnipresent danger of using flange in a mix.

As I've already gushed on about the release as whole, to the extent that the review is bordering on becoming a Michener work, I'll close with adding a few notes about the first few tracks:

The Beginner:

Before a note is sung, you already know there's something different about this. I have no clue what Rick did to effect the "mystery instrument" at the onset of the track, but it's unlike anything I've ever heard sitting in the bed of traditional instruments that kicks the song off. By the time the vocals kick in, Miranda's delivery of subtle yet lush harmonies completely distract you from the import of the words she presents. It wasn't until several plays that I caught the significance of the choice of this track to begin the album. "I'm improvising as I go along, I got no excuse if it all goes wrong", and later "They say I'm a pretender, they say I'm a charlatan. If you're never a beginner, how you ever gonna begin?". For a freshman release, I can safely state Miranda is neither a pretender or charlatan. This is the real deal.

The Long Goodbye:

The staggered layering of the instrumentation on this track is a serious mindbender. The string arrangement that kicks the track off is just a hint at what follows. The first verse with it's acoustic guitar and Miranda's supremely airy delivery are gradually augmented with the rest of the arrangement, and and by the time Miranda sings "And there's a song I wrote for those who like to sing", the minimal layering has evolved into one of the tightest, most sonically diverse and simultaneously brilliant bits of studio arrangement I've ever heard. The recording of the acoustic guitar part is nothing short of spectacular, yet leaves ample space in the mix for the lush combination of heavier electric guitars, and wonderfully emotional pedal steel bits that follow, only to give way for a really gorgeous string arrangement that finals out into a trippy mix of everything.

Folkin' Hell:

The shuffle snare and kick that intro Folkin' Hell give you no indication of the groove that you're about to be treated to. By the time the song build's it's head of steam there's a drum / bass pocket to die for with a veritable sea of really tasty slide guitar parts, amidst other traditional mandolin parts, harmonica and god knows what else floating around in the layers. The jam out portion at the end would play exceedingly well at 3AM at a Bonnaroo or Rothbury.

Summary:

As for the rest of the work, just do yourself a favor and really sit through this one a few times. You'll be hooked. My favorite tracks change every time I listen to it.

And if you find after multiple plays that you still don't get it? Mail me your CD. I've got lots of other people to turn on and the damn thing's out of print.
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