Changing LightMirah’s fifth album proper continues the chamber- folk, rock/pop sound that she has been nurturing and refining since her 2004 album “C’mon Miracle”. This is also -deep breath – a break-up album but queer-identifying Mirah seems more inclined toward the very grown-up, conscious uncoupling of Gwyneth than that of, say, Fiona Apple. But saying that would also be doing this collection a massive disservice. “Changing Light” continues to showcase Mirah’s supreme knack of writing songs that charm and bewitch, and glorious melodies that have been a constant link through all of her solo work, but this time she really does mean business. Competing with the likes of the recent incarnation of Tegan and Sara as androgynous eighties prom sound-trackers and omnipresent recluse Sia, there’s a big and brilliant power ballad included here. It’s unexpected, not cynical in the slightest and conveys Mirah’s constant refusal to be pigeonholed into one, tidy category. She is making music now that is put together with staggering precision and beauty.

The opening of “Changing Light” is undeniably strong and assertive and, while not exactly front-loaded, it does set the bar extremely high for the remainder of the album. ”Goat Shepherd”, with its Spectoresque drum intro, thunders in this accusing and extrovert album opener. Guitars and drums bolster Mirah’s incredulous concern ‘said the Shepherd to the Goat, what is this feeling in my throat? So this is anger? I’ve never known her – she took over’. “Oxen Hope” is one of the best examples of Mirah’s ability to shapeshift and try on sonic cloaks which would normally be taboo within the genre. Electronic clatter, elegant but persistent, and unexpected auto tune caress Mirah’s vocals which, on this stand-out track, mourns the loss of eternal optimism; ‘did you know you’d struck the final blow to my oxen hope?’ “Turned The Heat Off” follows, the power ballad in question, and  it crashes and glides its way through into the irresistible pop chorus before descending into delectable strings and a falsetto warmth that marks new territory for the singer; she succeeds effortlessly. Subtle strings continue through to “Gold Rush” and build to a full orchestra in the melodramatic and expansive final minute; a cello solo and yearning tone lead to an exquisite experience.

Maybe sensibly, the sumptuousness established in the early part of “Changing Light”  drops away for the middle part of the album with “Fleetfoot Ghost” and the rambunctious “I Am the Garden” being rawer, and stripped back acoustic examples of the core Mirah sound, but lacking the bite, maybe, of her earlier work. The excellent “No Direction Home” pulls the album back on track with its solitary brass opening, r’n’b backing vocals behind tight economic melodies and a great understanding of space and drama. “24th Street” is a plain speaking, humorous, recollection of how bad behaviour becomes second nature during the final hours of a long-term relationship. Closing tracks “LC”, a tribute to the healing power of Leonard Cohen set in a near accapella choral-like interlude, and “Radiomind” are downbeat and minor and somewhat stranded from the solidly cohesive sound preceding it.

Relationship albums that come out this genre are usually easy to relate to and obvious; an all-encompassing weepie, histrionic angry interludes, self-love, self-loathing and nostalgia combined to make an overture to torment and rebirth. “Changing Lights” doesn’t feel like any of these things but these areas are, indeed, all covered. Mirah recounts her experiences in an even and indeed passionate way, lyrically she can be obtuse here and it would on occasion be a relief and a thrill to hear her disconnect from the sense of control and really let rip. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a fourth album in what feels like the natural end of a sonic trilogy. From the buzzy lo-fi indie pop and snark of “You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s LikeThis” which she debuted with in 2000 through to the ever more polished and sweeping sound of her work over the last decade, it does feel as though she has possibly peaked here with this sound. This album perhaps doesn’t expose her in the way one might have expected, considering its personal nature, but she continues to be one of the most thoughtful and surprising singer songwriters to come out of American over the last decade and “Changing Light” is Mirah’s most accessible and admirable release so far.

Product DetailsI’ve been keeping a very close eye on Tegan and Sara for a few years now, the Canadian twin sister  duo (and both of them  are gay shocka!) have gradually gone from a shrill, somewhat 2-dimensional alt-indie band to assured songwriters and performers over the space of 6 albums  and this, their seventh, promised what had surely been on the cards for some time now, the recruitment of a massively talented and successful pop producer to allow the girls to fully realise their top 20 potential, in sound at least if not sales.  Greg Kurstin has, amongst others, written for and produced Kylie, Santigold, Sia, Devo, Kelly Clarkson and Pink (alongside the work of his own group, The Bird and The Bee) with Lily Allen being his most frequent, distinctive and creatively diverse collaborator (he produced some of her debut and all of her very good second album “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and is currently working with her on a musical).

Tegan and Sara have in the last couple of years embraced dance remixes of their songs (in particular the brilliant wonky pop of “Alligator” from their last album, 2009’s “Sainthood”) and have  added their guest vocals to trance artists DJ Tiesto and Morgan Page’s work.  “Heartthrob” (and that’s definitely a heart throbbing in pain and not that of a pop idol’s appeal) is not a joyous, arms aloft, life-affirming, dance floor departure for the twins though.  It has its euphoric moments such as the rushing, power pop chords of lead single “Closer” and “Goodbye,  Goodbye” which has a huge, two-part chorus hook and exploits repetition very effectively as the song’s title suggests . But just by looking at the remaining song titles alone massive clues are given to the sisters’ general mood and along with Kurstin, who is responsible for the majority of “Heartthrob”’s production, have created a warm and full, mid-eighties influenced (Cyndi Lauper’s first album, Fleetwood Mac ‘Tango In The Night’, Madonna’s ‘Vision Quest’ soundtrack) mix of guitars and synths that sonically support the girls tales of distrust, disappointment and devastation.

With those kinds of themes and influences you shouldn’t be surprised if a power ballad (they usually terrify me) were to make an appearance and there are 2 amazing ones to choose from here. “Now That I’m Messed Up” ( ‘Now I’m all messed up, sick inside and wondering where you’re leaving your make up’ ) and in particular “I Was A Fool” both bring to mind Abba at their most domestically troubled and saddest when vocally and melodically Agnetha and Frida would somehow be both subtle and overwhelming at the same time. This album sees the first time that the girls have written songs together, they usually write tracks alone with a sole writing credit per track. If the outcome of the sibling’s teamwork is songwriting of this quality then I sincerely hope it continues along with Kurstin, I’m presuming, pushing vocal performances to a new level of soulfulness (many of the melodies are rooted in R’n’B structures).

I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” starts with pounding piano and a 60’s girl group aesthetic and by the time the vocal stutter effects arrive in the last 30 seconds has morphed into 80’s pop anthem that would befit the best of Stock, Aitkin and Waterman’s repertoire . If I had a gripe, and it would be a small one, this album could do with a few more of these kind of belters. This is a short album, just over 30 minutes, and at 10 songs can’t afford an attempt at flirty upbeat grooves like “Drove Me Wild” which only diminishes the sisters’ returns with a characterless vocal and lack of hook and “Love They Say” which sounds like a drab “Sainthood” reject which even magic pop dust can’t save. My favourite track is also the shortest, at 2.53 minutes, “How Come You Don’t Want Me” which  has an edge and a spike to it that none of the other tracks here do and sounds as though it could have been lifted from the sisters’ most satisfying and interesting album from 2007, “The Con”, containing all the best elements of the essential Tegan and Sara DNA.

“Heartthrob” is an album that is a little bit backward in coming forward; it isn’t as instant as you might expect given its credentials and rewards are definitely reaped through related listens. It might not be the sisters’ best album but it definitely contains some of their best and most emotionally engaging work. If you’re lucky enough to still have a record shop near you, then I recommend you spend a tenner on this.  Come summer, when you know all the words off by heart and are belting them out on your car journey to the coast, you’ll thank me.