Concept albums have been a standard in music debate for decades. Whether such an attempt equates to an artistic failure or success is often dependent on the artist itself and their general grasp on the theme at hand. By following a continuous theme and atmospheric intention throughout most of an album, several successful conceptual ideas include Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, or even The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Though those are just three off of a very small list of successful concept albums, you get the idea how surprisingly enjoyable they can be if implemented correctly. Expectedly, we have not seen a successful attempt in quite some time. Of course, no one expects artists to live up to Brian Wilson or David Bowie these days but contemporary artists appear to hold enough knowledge to be well aware that the production of a concept album is risky business. Why risk financial costs and commercial exposure for a flawed artistic expression? Well, it is nice to see that at least one musician has the guts.
It is not entirely shocking that Mirah‘s new album, Share This Place: Stories and Observations, contains an unconventional lyrical theme. Nah, considering that Mirah has always been considered a creatively ingenious oddball ever since her debut in 1997, fans have come to expect the most original of quality from the Philadelphia-born native. The surprising thing? Well, the theme covers the lives of bugs and insects. Bugs? You mean those nuisances that we spray, step on, and exterminate? Yes indeed. Only Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn could think up such a topic and she might also be the only one who could pull it off. The insect-oriented theme was apparently inspired by French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, one of the first scientists to discover several breakthrough characteristics of insects. Mirah is joined on the album by Spectratone International, a slew of musicians including Lori Goldston and Kyle Hanson of Black Cat Orchestra. It will also be produced by Steve Fisk (Nirvana) and longtime collaborator Phil Elvrum (The Microphones). For Elvrum fans, you may recognize Mirah as the female voice on The Microphones’ Don’t Wake Me Up and Window. Elvrum is often credited as discovering Mirah’s talent, as he also produced her debut full-length, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This, in 2000 after enlisting her as a backing vocalist for The Microphones.
Apart from the theme, Share This Place: Stories and Observations also inherits a new stylistic progression in Mirah’s area of instrumental expertise. While her previous solo albums contained a diverse array of folk-rock, lo-fi acoustic, and general alternative (even earning her comparisons to Liz Phair), her new album takes a completely new direction that we have not heard from Mirah before. Mirah appears to be calling on her Jewish roots quite vividly in this stylistic transition, bordering on Klezmer music or even Gypsy-folk. While the instrumentals to some songs like “Dinner” sound like they could fit at a Jewish wedding quite well, it is Mirah’s lyrical portrayal that throws any predictable religious assumptions out the window. The lyrics to “Gestation of the Sacred Beetle” may be the oddest form of expression I have heard all year, with Mirah’s description of a beetle’s birth process being quite interesting to say the least. Some will consider it brilliant, others will consider it to be an utter failure. Either way, that is the result of a concept album. I for one enjoy it, if not for the diverse and flavorful instrumentation complementing a form of wordplay that you certainly do not hear everyday.
Mirah took a risk and she succeeded in relaying the similarities between humans and insects in Share This Place: Stories and Observations. As crazy as it sounds, some of her material is very well established. “Gestation of the Sacred Beetle” relates the need for maternal guidance in both insects and humans, as Mirah speaks from the view of a newborn beetle. “My mother made for me this pair, a perfect womb, a modeled lair, where I will grow and eat my share of pastry rich beyond repair,” somehow sounds poetically justifiable over musical accompaniments both originative in Jewish and Middle-Eastern styles. When the song slides into a beautiful instrumental chorus, one cannot help to at least consider the next time they contemplate killing an insect. Well, I will probably continue to do so if it is bothersome, but still, fresh perspectives are always enlightening. Beats a rambling entomology lecture any day. The album will be released with the short film “Credo Cigalia”, directed by Britta Johnson. My guess is that the short film will be about the album’s central topic: insects.
While songs like “Gestation of the Sacred Beetle” or “My Prize” make justifiable themes prevalent and synthetically comparable, I could not help but laugh and roll my eyes at songs like “Emergence of the Primary Larva”. Whether or not it is intentionally satirical, the lyrical content is laughable and the instrumentation is too linear for compensation. Then there are songs like “Song of Psyche” that drag on too long in a repetitive nature, even if the theme if somewhat more acceptable in the emphasis of insectual salvation. However, these are just a few duds to avoid on an otherwise admirable album. Other tracks like “Love Song of the Fly” and “Supper” showcase emotional intensity through impressively composed instrumentation. Mirah’s voice is still lighthearted and sweetly endearing, even if the topics she speaks of are anything but appetizing. When Share This Place: Stories and Observations is released on August 7th, it should be humorous to see the types of reviews it receives. Whether the critics shout “brilliant!” or “horrendous!” is expected, but I am almost positive there will be no in-between stance on this original album.
P.S.: In the middle of writing this feature, I saw a spider scamper across my bedroom floor. No joke.
Yeah, I killed it. Sorry Mirah.