Avanti popolo!

Mirah gets back to the political roots of folk music.

by Keri Carlson

Mirah’s last proper album, “Advisory Committee,” came out in 2002. Over the years, she has strung fans along with appearances on Microphones albums (who are her label mates at K Records) and a collaboration with Ginger Brooks Takahashi, released last year. While these efforts have all been satisfyingly Mirah, we are ready for another solo album. We want more of just her gentle, whispery vocals and quivering, quirky guitar that sets her far from the boring “singer-songwriter” label. But before we get the new album, which comes out May, Mirah releases one last collaboration to tease us.

“To All We Stretch the Open Arm” is Mirah with the Black Cat Orchestra. A majority of Mirah songs keep the noise and instrumentation stifled and minimal, only to explode into thunderous distortion and furious guitar. A full orchestra sounds like an odd choice for Mirah, taking away from her signature low-fi bedroom style. However, she chose the orchestra for a specific purpose. This is not exactly a Mirah album. Only two of the songs were written by her; the rest of the songs are covers and adaptations of traditional folk songs from Spain, Italy and elsewhere.

As Mirah notes in the liners, the album was recorded “as the world braced itself for another war.” Every track on “To All Ö” could be described as a protest song.

The Black Cat Orchestra works perfectly for this purpose. The group masters playing Eastern European, Latin American and Asian traditional styles that sound like a mix of gypsy, klezmer and jazz. Known for scoring silent films, the band’s music carries a kind of timelessness so that songs written centuries apart sound natural together.

Mirah’s voice first appears on her own song from “Advisory Committee,” “Monument.” She sings, “If we believe in the fight then we’re all saved” and “It’s a long, long way till the promised land/ so try where you are, do what you can.” These lyrics end the album optimistically. On “To All,” however, the orchestra adds elongated strings and an accordion, which create a darker mood. The first version gives the impression that there is much to be hopeful for; now it pleads to not give up hope.

The highlight of the album is another Mirah-penned tune, “The Light.” This track most resembles a classic Mirah melody. The band lies subtly in the background as Mirah sings the verses timidly and builds to a full, lively chorus. With the band, Mirah’s voice is louder and featured more prominently in the mix than on her other albums.

This helps her words become commanding and shows their importance. She chillingly croons, “Please don’t put a price on my soul,” on Bob Dylan’s “Dear Landlord.” She sings with a passion that makes her cover choices relevant. “Bella Ciao” ends the album with a foot-stomping traditional Italian song. Though her voice is not naturally forceful or loud, she uses its loveliness to capture the story of a deceased antifascist partisan.

Occasionally, moments on the album sound too much like a Disney villain song (think of the Gaston song in “Beauty and the Beast”), which makes the music comical rather than political. “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” breaks in with an odd male voice that ruins the entire tune.

But the bad tracks are few and short. “To All We Stretch the Open Arm” fulfills its intent to show the importance of protest songs.