Welcome to Backtrack, Sam Hockley-Smith’s new Stereogum column dedicated to a remembrance of great things past, of important records situated in the middle ground between Legendary Reissue Status and yesterday’s news. Backtrack will unfold as a crate-digger’s journey [or: in relation to itself], drawing connections to previous stops, celebrating artists’ seminal platters. It’s borne out of love for the unrivaled power of the album format, and what happens when we think about great ones. We began with the Microphones’ new millennial classic The Glow Pt. 2. Today, it’s fellow K Records release Advisory Committee.
Mirah has a voice that is soft at the edges, but there’s enough depth to it that listening to her sing is like slowly peeling back the blankets on a bed endlessly without ever reaching the mattress. It’s welcoming, but just slightly off.
Though 2004′s C’mon Miracle, the follow up to 2002′s Advisory Committee, is a more cohesive listen, Advisory Committee, in all its blurry heaviness, is a lot more interesting. Mirah’s always been great at writing love songs that seem like a lot more than just love songs. mostly because she’s willing to really go for it — imbuing even basic tales of heartbreak and loneliness with epic moments of cathartic screaming or husky-voiced power.
Mirah alone is a formidable songwriter, but working with Phil Elverum — the man behind last week’s Backtrack, The Glow, Pt. 2 — on production, her songs take on a new light. Part of this is, I think, about her relationship to her environment. Like Elverum, she clearly has a knotty relationship with nature and her place in the world, but where Elverum uses those things — trees, looming mountains, blankets of fog — as outward signifiers of his emotions, Mirah pulls everything inward.
On album opener “Cold Cold Water,” Mirah sings “I left the only home I knew/ I stayed alive and I found you/ Now I take you where the water’s deep/ And make the air you breathe so sweet.” It feels as much like a pop song as it does a battle cry, especially when the track transitions from sadness with tinges of regret to this: “But when I ride again into the night/ My torch will shoot flames strong and violent/ And my absence will remind you of/ How tough it is to be in love.” These are plain moments, but they’re honest in their plainness. And listening to the track’s opening beats — a drum the size of a sun, droning strings, and what sounds like (but probably isn’t) one of those giant war horns made out of a tusk — it feels like it’s about the end of the world instead of the dissolution of a relationship. It’s over the top in just about every way imaginable, almost ridiculously so, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes life change, in the moment, feels world ending, it doesn’t matter that it maybe isn’t.
Mirah clearly isn’t content to sit only in the singer-songwriter mode. In fact, she’s not really content to sit anywhere, but rather uses the record’s hollow yet lush production to guide a collection of songs united by a loose theme and the intimacy that theme evokes. “Make it Hot” is another great moment, but in a completely different way from the bombast of “Cold Cold Water.” It features rough guitar work, with plainly audible finger scrapes across sun-dappled guitar strings—then the song builds to an unexpected climax of booming synths and dramatic keys. A very human relationship goes widescreen. Elsewhere, “Body Below” pulses tense without any release whatsoever. As much as these songs shouldn’t work together, they do.
Advisory Committee is a messy album. Emotionally messy. Musically messy. Humanly messy. But it’s not sloppy. Instead, it’s the sound of Mirah searching for, and finding, the revelations that come with moments of loss. It’s not necessarily very positive, but it’s always real.