Much has been made of the perceived incompatibility of Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn and Thao Nguyen. The former is a veteran of San Francisco’s indie scene, quietly soldiering away through album after album of intimate, introspective folk. The latter is a scrappy, power-pop songstress, sowing dance parties wherever she goes with the help of her indomitable backing band, The Get Down Stay Down. According to conventional wisdom, the two should form a complementary whole, with Mirah providing a meditative Yin to Thao’s raucous Yang. It’s a convincing dichotomy, but one that puts forth an overly simplified view of both performers, but particularly of Nguyen, whose most boisterous and charming compositions have always been characterized by a kind of weariness and gravitas that more than matches that of her partner. Also, if we’re going to be perfectly forthright, the album isn’t exactly Steve Albini and Mirah. There are plenty of commonalities shared by the two artists. Mirah has proved to be a pliable collaborator time and time again, and Thao is no stranger to acoustic balladry.
That easy binary becomes even harder to maintain when confronted by the actual artifact of their combined labors. Opening track “Eleven” kicks the teeth out of any preconceived notions you brought to the record. It’s an absolute treasure: a melody (co-written with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, who also produced the album) that feels not so much composed as jury-rigged out of improvised percussive instruments, handclaps, vocal spasms, and muti-tonal synth to create something more bold and spacious than anything I’ve heard in either artist’s back catalog. The two women trade vocal duties gleefully, with Nguyen’s husky alto sulking into the verse like the moribund shadow of Zeitlyn’s. It’s a thrilling moment where 1 + 1 equals something much more than ‘2,’ and unfortunately it sets the bar impossibly high for the rest of the record.
Subsequent tracks return to more familiar territory, with a spate of songs whose melodies lean heavily on acoustic strumming. It’s a bit of a come-down after such a breathlessly inventive intro, but they give both artists ample space to paint the serpentine contortions of their hearts. Nguyen’s lyrics are of particular interest to me. As a songwriter, she seems fixated on, if not the dark side of sexual liberation, then at least its downside. For many of the songs on 2009’s criminally underrated Know Better Learn Faster, sex came off as, at best, an empty pantomime of something once meaningful and, at worst, a joyless burden. The burden of sexuality is on full display here, too, whether she is wryly lamenting, ”I used my body like a handshake/ Count and see all the friends I made“ in “Folks,” vowing to herself that “This is the last time I drag myself from your bed” on “Teeth,” or offering a particularly acerbic bit of advice to “Put your hands/ Down your pants/ Before your daddies do” on the bluesy “Likeable Man.” It’s a unique perspective that I find wholly captivating, even amidst some of the album’s weaker melodies.
The album packs a few more surprises along the way. The Mirah-led “Spaced out Orbit” morphs almost imperceptibly from a tender break-up ballad into something almost dystopian in vision. Next to “Eleven,” the track that enamors me the most is “How Dare You.” ”I’m coming over/ To remind you of me,” threatens Nguyen, the spurned lover, making good on her reputation as the anarchic half of the duo. Zeitlyn replies with a meager plea, “No you can’t lay there/ That’s where we used to sleep.” But just as you think the players have settled into their roles for this tawdry little melodrama, they change things up in the second verse. ”Well I can’t help it/ Oh, I should spare you,” Zeitlyn frets, ”But I can’t help it/ Oh, I would not dare to.” The masochistic thrill of self-destructive romance and its emotional toll has rarely been so vividly depicted. They bring the whole thing to a close with the charmingly ramshackle “Squareneck,” complete with a cathartic Get Down Stay Down-esque shout-along chorus.
As far as collaborations go, Thao & Mirah does a good job of showcasing its contributors’ strong points while still allowing them to mesh together as an organic unit. Fans of either act will certainly find plenty here to fawn over. Nonetheless, the poignantly brilliant tracks point almost accusingly at the great album that could have been.