by Michael Goldberg
Monday July 9, 2001
Getting To Know Miranda Lee Richards
Plus why the New York Times is wrong about R.E.M. and Radiohead
You've likely never heard (or heard of) Miranda Lee Richards, but you soon will. In late August her debut album, The Herethereafter, will be out on Virgin, and I'll be very surprised if the music press isn't raving about her by then.
I hope they are, anyway, 'cause I have kind of a vested interest. Three years ago Miranda's mother, the comic-book artist Teresa Richards, asked my wife if we wanted to see her daughter perform at a local bar. As a courtesy, my wife said yes.
We found ourselves at the rather funky Red Devil bar on San Francisco's Polk Street. The next day I wrote a short news item for SonicNet's "Music News of The World": "The folks at the Red Devil bar in San Francisco were chattering away Wednesday night when L. A.-based folk-rocker Miranda Richards took the stage. But as soon as they got a glimpse of the stunning young singer/songwriter, and heard her sing, the talking stopped. Richards, who said she's been in the studio cutting demos with her band, sounds a bit like Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, and writes sad-core songs that Mark Eitzel would appreciate. Her cover of Bob Dylan's 'She Belongs to Me' was a stunner, but even more impressive was an original called 'Vagabond Angel.' Catch her now, so you can say you saw her when...."
With The Herethereafter, Richards has more than followed through on the talent I saw that night. Her recorded voice is a high, fragile, beautiful thing. There's a touch of country, but it's more the kind of voice you'd expect to hear on 78s of "old-timey" music. I hear a faint echo of Maria Muldaur circa "Midnight at the Oasis"; she also reminds me a bit of the late Lynn Hughes, who in the mid-'60s sang a few songs with the Charlatans, whose repertoire included lots of old-timey music (not to mention the singer/drummer Dan Hicks). What I'm trying to say here is that Richards' voice brings to mind Tiffany lamps, velvet curtains and the citified Old West. You could imagine finding her sometime in the '20s, singing with a piano accompaniment in some Nevada City saloon.
Her music mostly isn't old old-timey, although some, such as "The Landscape," a ballad with piano and orchestration, certainly is. More typically, songs like album opener "The Beginner" and "The Long Goodbye" mix modern, at times trip-hop rhythms with folk, rock and psychedelic elements. A cover of the Rolling Stones' "Dandelion" adds to a slightly '60s retro feel, as does one of her press photos, in which she has a flower in her hair and wears a blouse with a lace collar. "Vagabond Angel" didn't make it onto the album; I hope she's just saving it for the next one.
Getting It Wrong
OK, OK, so all critics have the right to make up the rules and then weigh the albums they listen to against them. That doesn't mean I have to sit by in silence. The latest piece of criticism to cause me to pace about a review of the recent albums by Radiohead and R.E.M. by a writer named Kelefa Sanneh appeared in the New York Times on Sunday (July 1). For some reason, Sanneh has chosen to use some theories Joe Carducci put forth in his 1994 book, "Rock and the Pop Narcotic," as the setup for his review. Carducci wrote: "The essence of quality in rock's musical terms is to be found in the musical interaction of the players of a guitar, a bass and a drum kit. Its special musical value is that it is a folk form which exhibits a small-band instrumental language as in jazz, rather than mere accompaniment to a vocalist as in pop."
Sanneh presents this to set up his discussion of how R.E.M. and Radiohead used to be bands that fit the Carducci definition, but now aren't. Of the groups' new albums Reveal and Amnesiac he suggests that "when rock groups move away from rock music, they also move away from 'group' music. Reveal and Amnesiac sound like the work of composers and arrangers, not players. Neither of these albums really works, but there are enough successes here to justify optimism about whatever comes next...."
Why the albums don't work is not clear. Sanneh apparently wishes R.E.M. and Radiohead would make music like they used to get in a room, plug in, jam, come out with some great songs. Only I don't know that that's the way R.E.M. ever wrote songs, and I don't know that it's the approach Radiohead used to take either.
The creative process is a mysterious one, and there are no rules. Bands like R.E.M. and Radiohead have been around for a long time R.E.M. since 1980; Radiohead since the early '90s. They have benefited from breakthrough after breakthrough in recording studio technology, and like some of their inspirations the Beatles, Brian Wilson they've taken advantage of them.
Sanneh seems to think that because they are utilizing loops and samples in their recordings, and because they are experimenting and not just playing the songs together in a room, they are no longer bands. "Like Mr. Yorke, Mr. Stipe often sounds as if he's singing along to something he's hearing in his headphones; the force of a singer engaging a band has been replaced by the juxtaposition of vocals and accompaniment. Instead of competing for space in the same tight arrangement, voice and music occupy totally separate spheres."
Reading that, I have to wonder if Sanneh and I have listened to the same albums. I have to wonder if Sanneh just wants more of the same ol' same ol' from two bands that refuse to repeat themselves. And I also have to wonder about Sanneh's premise. As far as I know, neither Radiohead nor R.E.M. signed that "A band must conform to these..." contract. I think they've always made the music they damn well wanted to make. They're still doing that, and god bless 'em.
Why You Should Read Tape Op
Actually, perhaps you shouldn't. If you could care less about how Tortoise record their music, or how the guys in Matmos are approaching being part of Björk's backing band when she tours, you'll find the idiosyncratic, lo-fi-feeling Tape Op a bore.
Some of us find that kind of thing fascinating, and Tape Op is one of the best places to go if you do. Not only that, but if you happen to live in the U. S. of A., you can get a free subscription just by going to www.tapeop.com. I guess it's worth it to them to have a larger subscription base, but it's a boon to those of us who find discussions of analog synthesizers interesting, or who are amused and awed by learning that the Matmos guys will take two of every synthesizer, Emulator, hard drive or other sound-generating piece of equipment they use for the Björk tour with them, and they'll be set up so that they can "switch over to all the back-ups seamlessly if anything ever goes wrong."
The Venice, Calif.-based publisher Feral House has published "Tape Op: The Book About Creative Music Recording," a book packed with interviews with the likes of Pavement, Guided By Voices and The Apples In Stereo. These guys the Tape Op crew seem to approach the whole how-to-make-your-own-album thing from a "real" place. They're actually trying to help real musicians who don't have a fortune to spend on equipment figure out how to do this stuff. My kinda folks.