Space is the Place

Once more, for the back row: Miranda Lee Richards is not, legally speaking, the godchild of R. Crumb, the famed and once-underground artist responsible for Fritz the Cat, "Keep On Truckin'," Mr. Natural, Flakey Foont and Eggs Ackley, among other seminal artifacts of the hung-up generation. She's not the godchild of the man whose work was decried as pornographic, misogynist, drug-addled and indicative of widespread social collapse during the San Francisco "underground comix" boom of the early 1970s. The truth is worse.

Miranda Lee Richards is the daughter of artists Ted (creator of "Dopin' Dan") and Teresa Richards, whose work often graced the same earthy pages as Crumb's. Ted Richards, in fact, was once sued along with a handful of other artists by the Walt Disney Co., which is a feat Crumb himself has yet to top. At issue was the Air Pirates series, which depicted the heretofore unchronicled dope-smuggling, free-sex-and-love adventures of Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and the standard high-profile crowd. Now that's daring. (Though the cartoons were not Richards' creation--they were Dan O'Neill's--all artists who contributed to the series were named in the 1971 suit.)

Since the laws of God and Man and Parody, and probably certain laws of physics and the time-space continuum, do not apply in Unca Walt's No-Fun Zone, Disney wrangled a "summary judgment" on its copyright infringement suit in 1978, which is a whole 'nother fascinating story (in which, to give you an example of its complexity, both sides claimed victory).

But suffice it to say that young Miranda Lee did grow up in heavy company.

"Actually," she reports, "my father and R. Crumb were sort of creative rivals when I was little. My dad was still trying to make a name for himself, and Crumb, even then, had the most name recognition of any of the artists in that scene. So he was around a lot; they moved in the same circles, but Crumb never really had anything to do with my growing up. The 'godfather' thing was something that someone had creatively worded, and then it ended up in my bio and it got reprinted all over the place. But it's not true."

What's true and not true about Miranda Lee Richards makes reading her current press all the more frustrating. For example, it's true that Richards is remarkably handsome--almost preternaturally beautiful after a Nordic model. In photographs she seems to be all face (as artists such as Marlene Dietrich and Nico in previous eras were very much face); and in performance, her appearance onstage has been reported to silence entire crowds of boozy L.A. scenesters, which is no mean feat. It's also true that her musical sensibilities and a lot of her listening tastes are rooted in California, and particularly San Francisco, the city of her birth; she speaks lovingly and frequently of those influences.

However, Richards' genetics and bone structure have tended to mix too easily with her music in the minds of many sidelong observers, with the unfortunate result that--if one didn't know much else about her and hadn't heard her debut release, The Herethereafter--one might mistakenly perceive her as a spaced-out throwback to a bygone era, a genre artist three decades too late, a new-millennium (gasp!) hippie chick. Wrong, and wrong.

"I guess it has to do with how you define the word," she says carefully when asked about the word psychedelic, which occurs frequently in interviews and articles about her. "When I think of 'psychedelic,' I think about backwards guitars, bells, lots of effects...sort of 'folk plugged in,' like Donovan's 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' or the Fairport Convention, the Mamas and the Papas. I don't really mean, like, the Jefferson Airplane...although I love Grace Slick; I love the band's early stuff. So much music now, groups like Mercury Rev and Spiritualized, pays a lot more attention to the depth of the sound in the recording. That's what I mean when I say psychedelic. Music where the songs have a little more space to them."

There is a great deal of space on The Herethereafter, in both its sound and its subject matter. Inner space and the spaces between people are Richards' primary concerns on songs like "The Beginner" ("I'm improvising as I go along/I got no excuses if it all goes wrong") and "Last Solstice of the 70s" ("You/Don't have much to say/And I/Throw words away"). Lyrically, Richards' songs run the gamut, from straight reportage of faulty connections to poetic expressionism; at least once, on the expansive cut "Seven Hours," she proves herself capable of near-Dylanesque inscrutability without ever coming off obtuse. And there's a cover of the Stones' little-known gem "Dandelion" that's almost worth the price of admission by itself.

"These songs, really, are written in a kind of classically singer-songwriter way," Richards says at one point. "I wanted to build a reputation as a songwriter [with The Herethereafter]." It's a fair bid, an album whose ethereal lyricism compares favorably with records such as Mazzy Star's Among My Swan and the Innocence Mission's Glow. But like those albums, The Herethereafter tricks up solid songwriting with a grab bag of mixing effects and production touches--"the ear candy," as Richards rightly puts it--which is, finally, the point where her album comes to touch upon psychedelia in a most satisfying way.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Waggoner