Slave songs developed to encode the experience of temporal suffering and the longing for Earthly emancipation into the language of religious suffering and heavenly freedom. The hopes and fears of slaves are memorialized in those oft-mournful songs.
The Miami‘s “I’ll Be Who You Want Me To Be” is a translation of eight traditional African-American, but not exclusively slave, lyrics into a very modern indie genre that emphasizes the world-weary, beaten down aspects. The Miami, a duo of self-proclaimed “middle-class, secular, well-educated college kids,” sounds a lot like the most downtrodden moments of Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. In fact, my favorite Pedro the Lion song (a heartbreaking version of traditional hymn “Be Thou My Vision”) is similar to The Miami’s reinvention techniques. The Miami, however, eschews all familiar markers from the songs — you’ll never recognize “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — to bring the tragedy of the words to the forefront.
It’s interesting that The Miami wears its secular background on its sleeve. Some lyrical meaning dissipates if the songs are being understood outside of an eternal hope – the afterlife wasn’t the only meaning of the words, but it was certainly a part of it. However, in translating not only the lyrics of the songs but the meaning of the tunes into a world-weary (“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”), “lo-fi,” occasionally avant garde (“If He Changed My Name”) genre, The Miami is free to make reference to the modern music world’s redemption stories.
And lo-fi (which at this point in history is an aesthetic choice, not an actual fidelity level) is about as redemptive as the current story runs. There are stops and starts in performance throughout the album; the album isn’t perfect, nor is it intended to be. There are intentionally unfixed “mistakes” (what a modern radio-listener would call mistakes, at least).
This, I believe, points out that The Miami is not broadcasting from some high tower: they are normal people, just like the listener. The acknowledgment of human collective (which is what the original slave songs produced) is here as well: the erratic, idiosyncratic aspects of the album were chosen to show that this is how we do mourning these days – and we can all tap in to that.
At least, “all” of those who ascribe to a Pitchforkian ideal of lo-fi recording as ideological purity. The vocal performance of “I Shall Not Be Moved” can be described as hysterical, strangled and occasionally atonal; it sounds glorious as juxtaposed against a beautiful, stately keys backdrop. There are large swaths of people who would only hear the vocals and hate it. The atypically loud and distorted ending to “I Danced in the Morning” will call up all sorts of garage-rock comparisons, which will turn off other people. Just the fact that I invoked Pedro the Lion will turn away some.
“I’ll Go Where You Want Me To Go” is not for everyone. It’s as much (if not more) fun to think about than to actually listen to, especially in the more difficult songs. But it does possess a beauty for those willing to look and listen deeply (“Ring Out, Wild Bells,” especially). It’s an unusual album, but it has distinct worth and merit that I enjoy.