4 out of 5 stars
“Soft and understated” is a phrase with negative connotations that are often hard to shake. If a politician’s speeches were labeled as such, that person’s campaign would surely falter. If a boxer’s punch was “soft and understated,” that fighter wouldn’t be landing a whole lot of championship belts anytime soon. In music, however, “soft and understated” can be a very good thing.
(a)spera, singer-songwriter Mirah’s latest, is a shining example of such a case with its patient instrumentation and soothing vocals. Mixing a menagerie of musical styles from countless eras and parts of the world, Mirah’s new release keeps things interesting while holding onto a thread of cool collectedness.
The album is rarely fast-paced, maintaining a constant string of calm, subtle songs. On “Education,” gently plucked guitar strings and dawdling drums provide a picturesque pastoral background to Mirah’s whispery singing. She “oohs” and “aahs” and “la-las” and “da-das” as violins enter the scene, filling out the sound with eerie, drawn out chords.
Subtlety in motion pops up again on “Shells.” Like a lullaby, the track features a harp and Mirah’s sugary-sweet voice in a hushed, cherubic tone. Each song flows into the next without difficulty, tightening the already cohesive sound of the relaxing atmosphere that pervades the record.
On the rare occasion when (a)spera speeds up into the land of the moderately paced, the accelerated tempos don’t sound out of place. On “Forest,” which features distorted guitar riffs and ska-like horns, Mirah’s voice remains waif-like and comforting, acting as a uniting factor that drives the song’s deviation from the rest of the album.
Mirah not only manages to maintain the intertwining nature of the album despite changes in instrumentation and pace, but also creates variation with sounds from around the world. “Country of the Future” is the best example of her sampling of global flavors, singly encompassing several musical styles. The song begins with a few short rolls on a steel drum that mistakenly foreshadow a mellow reggae number. The erroneous prediction is quickly disproven as Spanish guitars and maracas kick in, spawning a distinctly Latin sound. Militaristic snare drums enter, contrasting the Mediterranean calm provided by the Spanish elements. Mirah’s voice straddles globalization, keeping a whisper-like intonation while taking on a Middle Eastern harmony. Her vocalized Arabian rhythms become even more pronounced at the song’s culmination as she begins to chant as though she were leading a call to prayer from a minaret.
The title of “Country of the Future” could not fit the song’s global amalgamation any better. The track’s mélange of sounds echoes growing globalization and multiculturalism taking place around the world. It is a vision of a nation where drastically diverse colors and creeds stand together in tightly knit solidarity.
(a)spera as a whole is a striking example of aesthetic unity. The album concocts a mellow tranquility with lilting vocals and relaxing instrumentation, maintaining a perfect balance of similitude and fluctuation. It’s a mature and graceful effort, quite happy to occupy the backseat with its soft, understated personality. But (a)spera’s dexterous fusion of solidarity and alteration begs a more prominent place riding shotgun.