In a city where even the corporate media has grudgingly admitted that roughly 70% of New Yorkers spend about 70% of their income on rent, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate residency than Holly Miranda‘s ongoing series of Thursday night shows this month at Hell Phone in Bushwick. Miranda’s music isn’t political, but she touches a nerve, in a profound and angst-ridden way. To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, when you’re this broke, there aren’t many options beyond getting together with your comrades-in-poverty…and when those sort of things fall through, as they seem to inevitably, Miranda will sing your soul back to you. Solo on Telecaster and then piano, her show last night was all about solace, and transcendence.
About two thirds of the way through, she cautioned the crowd not to expect happy songs, which was true, although there was plenty of fun in her roughly hourlong set. She proved herself to be probably the only person in history to cover both Connie Converse and Drake, and find an improbably sad connection between the two. In a duet with opening act Ambrosia Parsley, she slowly made her way through a starkly spacious cover of the BeeGees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. As woundedly intense as all that was, Miranda’s orignals were even more haunting.
She drew deeply from throughout her career, from the jaggedly incisive indie rock of her old band the Jealous Girlfriends, to her most recent, self-titled album as well as some unselfconsciously shattering new material. Out in front of a crowd, Miranda goes with raw vocal power more than the finesse that characterizes her studio work, airing out a soulful wail that sometimes alluded to that brittle post-Billie Holiday intonation that Norah Jones made so popular fifteen years ago – but with a lot more oomph and originality.
“I carry this torch across the ocean for you,” she intoned on the night’s opening number, swinging C&W spun through the fragmented prism of lo-fi 80s college radio rock. She flipped the script on her sassy singalong hit All I Want Is to Be Your Girl. trading out lust for longing. Slowly crescendoing Lynchian balladry gave way to a forceful clang as Miranda’s voice went up to the top of her range, from a muted mournfulness to wrenching heartbreak. She explained that she stole the chords for Hymnal from an actual book of hymns that her parents kept atop the piano in her childhood home, then told a funny story about playing it at the Grand Old Opry…and then sang the living hell out of it. The best song of the night was a somber new Nashville gothic piano tune, the chorus opening with, “So I’ll sing, because my mother can’t,” her voice rising with a bitterly allusive insistence.
And it was great to be able to hear Parsley open the night, trading songs and backed by guitarist Chris Maxwell, Miranda supplying ethereally bracing high harmonies. Together they made their way through a handful of uneasily torchy, slow swing tunes and a plaintively altered bolero, in honor of Cinco de Mayo. Last year, Maxwell put out a simmeringly lyrical album of southern gothic songs, Arkansas Summer, and he treated the crowd to a tantalizing trio of those as well. “I’ve learned to whistle down the wind,” he intoned with a nonchalant but knowing gravitas.
Miranda’s Thursday night residency continues at Hell Phone, 247 Varet St. in Bushwick through May 26, with a series of special guests opening the night a little after 9. Cover is $10, or $15 including a download of Miranda’s forthcoming ep. Take the L to Morgan Ave. and exit at Bogart St. The club is about three blocks away, enter through the phone booth at the back of the Ange Noir Cafe.