Thao Nguyen, Mirah Zeitlyn, and Merrill Garbus don’t yet have the name recognition to collectively be called a “supergroup.” But with Garbus on board as co-producer, Thao and Mirah’s self-titled album showcases the talents of three fantastic female songwriters, so they still deserve recognition.
Zeitlyn and Nguyen have been performing together since last year when they played at the Noise Pop festival in San Francisco, but Thao & Mirah is their first joint release. Nguyen is best known for her indie-pop outfit, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down. Zeitlyn’s career as a folk-rock singer-songwriter stretches back into the 90s. Producer/guru Garbus just released her second tUnE-yArDs album to rave reviews.
It seems to be another case of magnetic opposites. Nguyen is the rock and roller, bold and brazen—the girl who sang “bring your hips to me” on Know Better Learn Faster, her fantastic album with the Get Down Stay Down. Zeitlyn is quiet, sensitive, and contemplative. Her voice is sweet and clear; Nguyen’s is low and husky. Garbus ties them together, singing or providing instrumentals on all but one track. But for a collaborative effort, Thao & Mirah lacks synergy. There’s just one duet between Nguyen and Zeitlyn, and only one track features multiple songwriting credits. The album soars when Nguyen and Zeitlyn are a team; at its worst it sounds like cohabitating EPs by two seprate artists.
Luckily, opener “Eleven” is one of the tracks on which everything comes together perfectly. Composed by all three songwriters and featuring them all on vocals, this high-energy foot-stomper highlights Garbus’ signature afro-pop percussion. It’s unfortunate, however, that the strongest, most layered song on the album owes the primary songwriting credit to neither Nguyen nor Zeitlyn. Still, “Eleven” gets the album off to a roaring start. The other highs are all tracks on which Nguyen and Zeitlyn seem to meet each other halfway. “Rubies and Rocks” has an insistent beat, jazzy horns, and playful handclapping. By all rights, Nguyen should be on vocals, but Zeitlyn’s voice in this song is one of the album’s best surprises. While Nguyen is nowhere to be found on the recording, her influence is strongly present.
The album does falter occasionally, and when it does, Zeitlyn’s the culprit. “Hallelujah” and “Spaced Out Orbit” are pretty enough, but their lack of bite renders them forgettable. Nguyen is talented at keeping the proceedings charmingly light, while Zeitlyn’s songs grow ponderous. And I think we can all agree that the world doesn’t need any more songs called “Hallelujah.” “Eleven” and closer “Squareneck” are perfect bookends for Thao and Mirah. The sole songwriting credit for “Squareneck” goes to Nguyen, but Garbus’ mark is all over it, from her eclectic percussion to her lusty howl.
The album is no revelation—it’s not even more than the sum of its parts. Nguyen, Zeitlyn, and Garbus don’t transcend their individual musical identities, and frankly, given Zeitlyn’s weak points, Thao and Mirah might have been better off as Thao and Merrill. But the lack of cohesion is forgivable, as almost every song is so engrossing that the ones preceding it are forgotten, and you could care less about whatever is ahead. They may be nothing more than Mirah, Thao, and Merrill, but in the end, that’s a hell of a lot.