Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent Echoes Of The Dreamtime comes Miranda Lee Richards’ wonderful new release, Existential Beast. She describes it as “a political album that takes a personal tack”. “We are all still working”, she says, “within those animal urges of fear, competition, survival and sexuality which are [deep-seated] and manifesting in varying ways and degrees”. But like it or not, she continues, “these tendencies have been revealed, within our leaders, our countries and ourselves; it is indeed a pivotal and transformational time and there is much work to be done”. The personal may often be the political, but with Existential Beast the political seems more like the personal. There are a couple of more-or-less direct statements, “What about non-violence? Is that still in fashion?”, but you could be forgiven for thinking that Miranda Lee Richards is more concerned with the sound than the fury. For this is an album that’s full of gorgeous songs rather than empty slogans. There’s a mix of trippy Californian guitar (‘Golden Gate’), twangy Nashville pedal steel (‘Ashes And Seed’), and folky forest pizzicato (‘Oh Raven’). The most ambitious track, though, is the 12-minute closer, ‘Another World’. Backed by a bucolic mixture of oboe, flute, cello, and more, this is where the worldly meets the other worldly. There are clear references to recent events, “Well I see another world, Where we would march together, Our voices ringing in the street, The Stars and Stripes of unity, California don’t throw yourself to the sea, For the ballot was cast in your favour”. Yet, there are also moments of hope and even ecstasy, “Well I see Another World, Where we eat flowers for dinner, And we drink water from the spring, Elevating our hearts and our bodies”. Think Neil Young and ‘Natural Beauty’ and the spirit is the same. With its Narnia-like cover, Existential Beast is at once a modern-day political parable and a far-away fairy story. And that’s quite a combination.
Miranda Lee Richards has eclectic musical roots. Taught to play guitar by Kirk Hammet from Metallica, she was briefly in The Brian Jonestown Massacre in the late 1990s. This is now her third full-length release since going solo, but it’s her first since 2009. That’s a long time to be away. And it must have quite a trip, because over the course of 46 swirling minutes, she takes us on a wonderful and mind-expanding journey from her native San Francisco to her adopted hometown of LA, but with seemingly lengthy stopovers in Nashville, Rishikesh and other places in between. For this album is almost as eclectic as her musical upbringing, though with a very different set of influences. At times, it’s like listening to Jenny Lewis at her best. ‘Colours So Fine’ and ‘Tokyo’s Dancing’ are almost perfect indie-pop songs. By contrast, ‘Already Fine’ echoes the pastoral folk movement of the early 1970s with its warbly vocals and innocent ideals. And then there’s ‘Julian’, which is simply soaked in the spangly sounds of the sitar. It’s totally transporting. And it’s not the only moment when time seems to somehow slip away. There’s the series of chord changes towards the end of ‘Little Radio’, one of the highlights of the selection. And above all the moment at 3.05 on ‘First Light of Winter’ when the levee’s under threat and we have to place our trust in the good work of others. Miranda Lee Richards has been on both a spiritual and musical journey. She seems a better person for it. And, thanks to Echoes of the Dreamtime, we are too.