In a recent magazine interview Holly Miranda, ex-frontwoman of hipster rock band The Jealous Girlfriends and recent signing to XL, was asked about the production on this, her debut solo album. Produced by Dave Sitek from TV On The Radio, she had this to say about its sound; “At one point, Dave said to me, ‘I’m putting my finger prints all over this record’, and I said, ‘I know, I love it’”. It’s a pertinent point, not least for those that may have heard her recent EP Sleep On Fire, which housed her Cat Power-esque vocals in a decidedly more stripped back musical setting.
As with Cat Power, it’s in this setting that you may feel Miranda’s fragile, feather light songs work best, and a cursory search on youtube will bring up a handful of engaging solo performances, not least a heart-wrenching version of Waves filmed in a bar. But, what’s special about The Magician’s Private Library is that yes, Dave Sitek’s fingerprints are all over it – there are rumbling basslines, minimal beats, treated guitar sounds, horn blasts courtesy of Antibalas – but at it’s heart are ten deftly arranged and lovingly created tales of dealing with physical pain (Joints deals with Miranda’s battle with fibromyalgia) and emotional pain (the beautiful Slow Burn Treason).
Sitek’s production also adds a fantastic sense of having to uncover different layers to the songs, such as opener Forest Green Oh Forest Green. Starting with a childlike, fairground melody the song unravels almost as a round, with lines repeated over top of parping horns, acoustic guitar and some lovely harmonies. On first listen, it almost passes you by, giving you no real sense of what Miranda’s voice sounds like, but slowly the melody wriggles to the surface and it’s repetitiveness becomes it’s brilliance.
Joints and Waves are similar in tone, both songs gliding along like glaciers, with big, doom-laden guitars lightened by twinkling percussion and soft organ sounds. The latter is particularly emotional, Miranda sighing, “where do the waves go my love?” like a grieving widow gazing out to sea. No One Just Is picks up the pace slightly, Sitek introducing a weird, tremulous keyboard sound that zigzags through the chorus, Miranda sounding aggressive as opposed to aggrieved.
Other highlights are the breezy Sweet Dreams, which utilizes some ghostly backing vocals and a lovely rumble of bells that dance across the melody and the deceptively maudlin, Everytime I Go To Sleep, which sounds playful and childlike but houses this lyric: “Everytime I go to sleep/ I kick and scream and dream a little bit / Violently awakening to what’s real is really bullshit”. In many ways, that’s the album’s trump card, as the more you listen the more the songs shift and change shape, new sounds revealing themselves as it goes on.
The Magician’s Private Library is a startling debut from a singer who was confident her songs could survive being handed over to one of music’s most in-demand producers. Her instincts were correct and though Sitek does stamp his sound over much of the album, it’s only to augment what was already there as opposed to reframing entire songs. This dreamy, warm and otherworldly concoction is the perfect antidote to the grey and chilly beginnings of the impending new year.