The trouble with using the echoes of dreams as musical inspiration is that dreams are, by default, already echoes of something else. They are memories, fragments of our waking lives synthesized in sleep, underlying currents of consciousness whose forms are never fully revealed, hopeful visions of our future selves based on what we desire at present. The word itself encompasses all of its disparate meanings; “dreams” is unspecific by definition.
Which unfortunately makes it a fitting title for Miranda Lee Richards’ directionless third album. The singer-songwriter sounds more determined to create an atmosphere and dwell within it than to make a record; that such an atmosphere manifests in sonic form and now exists on an album is but a happy accident. Thus she creates the world and invites you to join her, but only casually. If you refuse, then you refuse. No big deal. No demands on anybody, least of all the listener. Exterior engagement might be nice, but it’s hardly necessary. No worries. Just drift.
It gets old. In Richards’ musical world, post-Americana psych-rock vagueness is the only way to be. The sun rises, the sun sets. The desert sands blow. Someone chases the night, someone rambles across the basin. The roads are dark, illuminated only by the neon light emanating from a sign in a dive bar window at the edge of the highway. Elsewhere, angelic children sleep in their mothers’ arms as the full moon rises. Everyone wears flowers in their hair, opens their third eye, and refers to the government as “The Man.” Hers is the America of Zabriskie Point, a symbolic, semi-western mythologized setting that never really existed. Characters with depth reaching beyond the desert traveler or mystic tropes will find no place to rest their head here.
Only one song manages to transcend the unfocused dreamscape. “First Light of Winter” is the album’s shimmering pinnacle, set in New Orleans and the stretches of land where the barriers dividing consciousness blur. Richards captivates with career-best vocals, her affecting performance lingering over a darkly elegant blues riff. Her phrases twist between worlds experienced and imagined, while the pervasive fear that the levees may not hold lurks beneath it all. Within the space of seven minutes, the minimalist guitar burns slow and blue, then rises to a strings-assisted climax. It’s magnificent.
If only it lasted. She quickly returns to prosaic psych-ish folk for the remainder of the record, meandering through an aimless back half. “It Was Given” fancies itself the crown jewel of a troubadour, but wears thin after five minutes (with three more minutes still to go). Obtuse lyrics and delivery – “The situation worsened” is sung with a cringe-inducing sincerity – and all-is-forgiven happy endings don’t help. The sitar makes an obligatory appearance on the non-threatening and unmemorable “Julian.” Only “The Colours So Fine” manages to leave an impression thanks to a pleasant swirling of kaleidoscopic dreaminess and clear-eyed intention.
But by the time “The Colours So Fine” arrives, it’s already too late. Echoes of the Dreamtime is a place where every oasis turns to a mirage amongst its barren surroundings, where the bad is too heavy a burden for the good to bear. And it’s sure as hell no place to live.