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When Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn and Thao Nguyen played together at Black Cat last June, they took turns performing songs from their respective discographies. A mutual friend had introduced the two after Mirah moved to San Francisco in late 2009. But the joint set, part of a tour billed as “Thao and Mirah with The Most of All,” only amplified their differences: a K Records veteran and one of Kill Rock Stars’ newest, erm, stars; one’s curled-up whisper and the other’s slightly off-pitch warble; the calm protests of a seasoned troubadour and the buoyant, brokenhearted ramblings of a Falls Church native still inviting her mother to her hometown shows. So while they clearly admired each other, there wasn’t enough of a spark that night to explain why their collaboration was worth its own tour.
Thao & Mirah is different. Produced by Tucker Martine and tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, the album belies its conventional origins. It sounds like the culmination of the musicians’ every conversation since they bonded over a home-cooked meal, and not just because they sometimes literally complete each other’s sentences.
On some songs, it’s easy to figure out who did the writing. Mirah breathes slowly and steadily on “Little Cup,” accentuating the sweet, natural lilt in her voice as Garbus ticks out galloping whispers of vocal percussion. In Thao’s “Teeth,” Mirah’s stomping cuts through Garbus’ persistent handclaps, parting the way for Thao’s fluttering, tumbling rollercoaster of a chorus: “Next time I swear/More hope, less fail.” “Little Cup” sounds like a demo for Mirah’s 2009 album (a)spera; “Teeth” could be a prelude to Know Better Learn Faster, the most recent album from Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. Both songs feel like late-night revelations shared over poor decisions and past accusations. They’re intimate and they’re devastating.
Other tracks are looser—thrift-store jam sessions, thanks in part to the sounds of cans, wine glasses, and a Roland JUNO-60. Mirah and a saxophone shuffle are equally seductive on the funky “Rubies and Rocks”; “Spaced-Out Orbit” features something called a “space banjo” and could easily be a Portishead B-side. Thao howls during the waltz “Folks,” and then issues close-to-deadpan sexual threats in “How Dare You” (“I’m coming over to remind you of me”). But despite its eccentric instrumentation, wide-ranging moods, and all-hands-on-deck approach, Thao & Mirah isn’t overbearing. Any one song’s arrangement is sparse and porous; because the record alternates between the two songwriter’s compositions, it settles into an easy, natural rhythm propelled by stomps and handclaps. Some songs are messy, but on the whole it’s a nice exercise in restraint.
In the end, Thao and Mirah sound like a natural pair—not all that different, after all.