HOLLY MIRANDA THE MAGICIAN’S PRIVATE LIBRARY (XL)
Audiences are accustomed to thinking of a pop songstress as a target-marketed construction or the handiwork of an unseen male Svengali, especially if her face is as lovely as her voice. From R & B to country, they see her more as a device than someone with an artistic pulse. People assume her persona has been calculated, that she’s been chosen for her looks; they don’t trust her work and hunt for ways to undermine its value. Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis dismissed Taylor Swift’s incredible success (more than 24 million digital tracks sold, y’all) on the February 5 episode of Sound Opinions by saying, “She’s popular because she’s a model.” And Pitchfork reviewer Larry Fitzmaurice casts aspersions on Holly Miranda simply because “Waves,” the first single off her solo debut, The Magician’s Private Library, sounds to him like it was engineered to be popular.
“Is Miranda readying herself for greater exposure on the horizon, or is this simply a bid for a song placement on next week’s episode of One Tree Hill?” asks Fitzmaurice, emboldened in his speculation by the damning evidence that two songs by Miranda’s band the Jealous Girlfriends have been used on Grey’s Anatomy. “Further suspicions are raised,” he writes (hey Larry, it’s Pitchfork, not Cabot Cove), because “Waves” is poppier than the rest of the record. Of course a lead single is commonly the hookiest, most viable song on an album, but Fitzmaurice hints that she’s misrepresenting the record in order to get over in the mainest of streams. “Waves” is a palatable, straightforward slow burner on an album of moody, quirky slow burners—it’s not like Miranda is dropping “Single Ladies” to push Metal Machine Music.
If you take the whole album into account, it’s impossible to believe that Miranda just wants a couple more $600 checks for song placement on some middling network comedy. Her voice is so consuming that it nearly dissolves its context—she sounds a bit like Chan Marshall of Cat Power, as many reviews have noted, if Chan Marshall were wholly invulnerable. Producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio provides his usual womb-of-reverb treatment, and while on occasion it’s made bands sound muddy or like they were floating untethered through outer space, it suits Miranda perfectly. She’s displayed jazz leanings in the past (notably on a self-released album in 2002), and her sultry voice retains a nimble lightness—amid Sitek’s dark washes, she sounds infinite and commanding.
Her band—a quintet, Miranda included—is on the subtle, dreamy side of Brooklyn art-rock, with glacial pacing, percolating electronic touches, and little daubs of guitar shimmer. Sitek’s production is instantly recognizable if you’ve heard a TV on the Radio record twice, and The Magician’s Private Library certainly merits some comparisons to that band’s output—especially with TVOTR front dude Kyp Malone adding vocals to “Slow Burn Treason.” But there’s no man behind the curtain here, and not even Malone can steal the show—the magic is unquestionably Miranda’s.