Miranda Lee Richards recalls another inordinately attractive former model and sometimes-singer, Zooey Deschanel, lending her better-than-average voice to a fawning patina of pedestrian alt-country. Richards, however, has been at this longer, since 2001 (her backstory is a jagged line that somehow leads from modeling in Paris to guitar lessons with Kirk Hammett to membership in the Brian Jonestown Massacre and living in a tent in a Los Angeles backyard), and her sophomore LP, Light of X, feels significantly stronger than She & Him’s first album, even without the help of M. Ward. It also feels distractingly clean. The fact that Richards’s website credits more than 40 film and TV licenses from her debut, The Herethereafter, for enabling her to make this album seems telling. The sanitized sheen here is certainly the stuff of clothing stores and mall concourses, with gushy lyrics (“In your hands/The smallest grain of sand/Becomes a treasure”) perfect for primetime dramas, weepy montages, and telegraphed emotional cues.
Yet while thousands of tons of this dross are produced on a yearly basis, Richards’s work stands safely above most, drawing on offbeat influences such as Mazzy Star and compositions that, despite sounding borderline soulless, are for the most part coldly dazzling. Richards describes her work as “Pixie Fairy Dust Chick Music,” but it’s nothing so inspired or whimsical. It’s pap, fussily measured and plotted out within an inch of its life, but its the best kind of pap—the kind that overcomes its over-production by virtue of basically skillful songwriting. The eerie, organ/bass/spoken-word threnody that closes the album on “Last Days of Summer” possesses an air of danger that the rest of Light of X lacks, but it seems like no coincidence that this risky moment is pushed so far to the margins, positioned almost as a hidden track. It may hint at a potentially better album, but it has no place on one that operates on such a mechanically efficient level.