[Friendly Fire; 2012]
Recently, Netflix added episodes on their instant que of the VH1 show “Classic Albums,” chronicling seminal albums and providing insight into the creation of each masterpiece. I’ve watched several episodes over the past few weeks, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the insight that the show offers. Why VH1 buried it on “VH1 Classic” is beyond my comprehension. One of my favorite aspects of the program are the moments where the one time producer revisits the mixing board and walks the viewer through the elements that made the album so influential. To see Rodger Bain breakdown the greatness of Black Sabbath as a band on “Paranoid,” one track at a time, is truly an eye-opening experience (most underrated band of all time?).
On the Nirvana “Nevermind” episode, legendary producer Butch Vig discusses the unique process of recording the fragile “Something in the Way.” When unable to capture the instability that Cobain wanted on the track, Kurt came into the studio, laid on the couch, and performed the song for Vig the way he wanted it to sound. Upon hearing his whispered performance, Vig quickly rigged up a microphone above the couch and recorded the song in one take, with Kurt still on his back singing one of the most intimate moments in Nirvana’s brief history.
One element of this mix board analysis hit me the wrong way. After telling the story of how the track was recorded as Vig “…literally held (his) breath,” he then discussed how they went back and added a drum track, a cello, and backing vocals to the chorus. As much as I love the song as it is on “Nevermind,” I can’t help but feel the significance of the moment was tarnished by a bit too much tinkering.
I imagine the scene in the recording studio during the creation of Mirel Wagner’s debut self-titled album was a tad different. While I can definitely imagine the Ethiopian-Finnish singer-songwriter lying back on a couch while performing her unique brand of doom folk, there is never a moment on the album where it isn’t simply Mirel and her guitar. Instead of trying to make the songs jump out at you in emotional swells, producer Jürgen Handlmeier allows the echoes of the studio to create the euphoria. The result is an album that is barebones, honest, and chilling. The fact that the songs were recorded in only two days furthers the feeling that these tracks are capturing a moment, validating the authenticity found within each revealing lyric and squeaking pick of a guitar string.
Mirel Wagner’s work on the album could easily sit alongside recordings by artists from the 1930s (stick with me on this one…).
In her lyrics you’ll find dark imagery reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and “Gloomy Sunday,” yet her narrative tales take on a more gothic approach. On “Red” she sings of a love affair with the devil who will “Eat your flesh/ and spit out the seeds.” Fittingly, Wagner’s “No Death” revisits the themes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” a man refusing to leave the side of his dead lover. While Poe’s narrator simply sleeps inside the sepulchre by the sea, Mirel’s narrator ups the ante, taking necrophilia to a whole new level as she snarls “my love will ignite/what was left to smoulder/I move my hips/in her I’m home/I’ll keep loving/ till the marrow dries her bones.”
In her patient finger-picking and strumming you’ll hear remnants of Dock Boggs steady banjo pluck. Mirel’s guitar swirls are hypnotic, laying out the foggy back-drop to her characters’ damned predicament. On “Joe,” as she sings from the perspective of a drowned victim, the guitar picking is constant and comes in currents like a running river, slowly pushing her voice forward like a piece of driftwood. And on “The Road,” the guitars softly ring out like a deathly waltz, the perfect eerie music to the tale of a dead man’s, un-wedded wife. With “The Road’s” creaky guitar reverberating in ¾ time, you can sense the ghostly bachelor moving around the room in search of his dance partner (if you ever feared a song summoning spirits into your home like a musical Ouija board, this may not be the album for you):
And within Mirel’s voice you’ll hear the soulfulness of Robert Johnson’s delta blues. Like an old blues singer, Mirel’s vocals are sleepy, pained, yet prurient, all at the same time. Her voice may go off-key at times or slightly crack amidst a terrifying whisper, but these “flaws” only propel her gypsy tale-spinning. Even though her songs are all conveyed through various narrators, it is clear within her stirring voice that there is a personal pain propelling her stories and this agony is the core of what makes this album such a compelling listen ( no cello or backing vocals necessary).