So: Thao and Mirah. Both acclaimed solo artists, both in their own way idiosyncratic: the former for the ways in which eras of pop music are spliced below boldly delivered vocals; the latter for a collagist’s warmth to pop traditions and the occasional shifts into political theory. Along for the ride in the producer’s chair for this collaboration is Merril Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs). Hey, when you’ve already got two talented songwriters in the room, why not add a third?
Thankfully, Thao & Mirah is a surprisingly organic collaboration between the two. In some ways, that’s due to the presence of Garbus, who is very much a presence here. (The ecstatic “Eleven,” in particular, features clattering percussion that evokes her own solo work.) While certain songs here will call up memories of Thao’s Know Better Learn Faster or Mirah’s (a)spera, this album does achieve a solid balance between a pair of clearly demarcated styles.
Occasionally, that balance gives way to something striking. Atop a baseline of blurred electronic beats, Mirah and Thao trade laments on “How Dare You,” a song where the lyrical give-and-take autopsies a foundered relationship. It also puts the differences in their vocal styles into sharp contrast, even as it allows them room to harmonize.
Those harmonies — Thao’s boldness mingling with Mirah’s penchant for achingly pinpointed evocations of melancholy — make for some of this album’s most memorable fragments. Certain songs would not be out of place on a solo effort from either collaborator, but more intriguing are the songs that suggest neither: the relentlessly rhythmic “Rubies and Rocks,” for instance, which sounds like a lost Arthur Russell production.
Stylistically, this collaboration veers from intimate in scope to blown-out and dancefloor-ready. And yet, it holds together neatly, shifting from style to style without really losing cohesion. It may be the exuberance on display here by the collaborators and their producer; it may be that the emotional range of these lyrics helps anchor the disparate musical styles on display. Either way, it’s a collaboration that plays out in unexpected ways, and is all the more welcome for it.