Thao and Mirah aren’t the likeliest pair. Sure, they share a love of acoustic guitars and prefer to be on a first-name basis, but you probably won’t find them grouped together in a RIYL list. But when Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn moved from Olympia, Wash. to San Francisco, she found a kindred spirit in Thao Nguyen, and the two eventually toured together. Now they’re debuting their first recorded collaboration, aptly titled Thao & Mirah.
Of the pair’s musical personalities, Thao is the wild girl — the one in the miniskirt who shows up to the party late, already a bit tipsy. Mirah is the serious, introspective girl on the fringes, taking mental notes on everyone in the room, then smiling sweetly while leaving early.
Take a look at their album covers. On her 2009 Kill Rock Stars release Know Better Learn Faster, Thao was front and center, blindfolded amid a sea of confetti and cheering/drinking partygoers. Mirah’s breakthrough 2001 album, K Records’ Advisory Committee, featured an abstract drawing in shades of gray.
Thao wrote a song about being “a body in your bed.” Mirah wrote a song cycle about insects.
Fortunately, all of that works in Thao and Mirah’s favor. It turns out the two are even better in cahoots than they are solo, each buttressing the other with her own set of complementary idiosyncrasies. They’re also helped along by tUnE-yaRds’ Merrill Garbus, who co-produced and contributed to Thao & Mirah, even co-writing album opener “Eleven,” a hyperkinetic, beat-heavy meditation on love’s elusive qualities (“When love is love don’t let it go away”).
Garbus realized and embraced the duo’s internal contrasts, interweaving them throughout the album. “Rubies and Rocks,” another peppy number, seems suited to Thao’s vocals. Instead, though, Mirah takes lead vocals, her pastel edges providing the perfect contrast to the swinging horn section, congas and the sweaty, throbbing bass.
Mirah’s writing leans toward the heady; “Spaced Out Orbit” is a sci-fi allegory of sorts, beautifully dark and moody. But it’s especially beautiful in context, preceding Thao’s “How Dare You,” a sad yet playful and downright danceable call-and-response ditty. “Sugar if you’re sure you’re going,” the two sing together after a wry back-and-forth, “We’ll move a little slower then.”
And while Mirah dabbles in innuendo on occasion, Thao throws subtlety out the window. “This is the last time I drag myself from your bed,” she sings on “Teeth.” On the even less subtle “Likeable Man,” she instructs, “Put your hands down your pants…” but it’s the follow-up line that really grabs you: “…before your daddies do.”
It’s thigh-slaps and digital drums. Wine glasses and synth bass. Party and after-party. Love and politics. Thao & Mirah.