Like most worthwhile artists, the Los Angeles-based folk singer Mia Doi Todd is a mess of contradictions. This slipperiness, this ability to be simultaneously one thing and its opposite, makes listening to her interesting, but it makes describing her difficult. How can a singer sound both intimate and declamatory, both pretentious and plainspoken? Where does someone with such regal phrasing (not to mention a Yale degree) get off doing folk music anyway? Aren’t folk singers supposed to muck around in the dirt with the downtrodden, write chantable anthems for the proletariat? When did it become acceptable to study avant-garde dance in Japan (as Todd did for most of 1998) or refer to oneself (as Todd does on her Web site) as “a bard, a folksinger, in the traditions of William Blake, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Nico, Caetano Veloso, Sinead O’Connor”?
Bob Dylan answered these questions about 40 years ago, and though there are probably still a few crusty old acoustofascists who never forgave him for dumping Hattie Carroll in favor of Arthur Rimbaud, most of us no longer expect our folk singers to be regular folks — regular folks, after all, like George W. Bush and NASCAR and Toby Keith, not ambiguous, airy-fairy, liberal-elite folk music that doesn’t even rhyme most of the time. Maybe it’s not Todd who contradicts herself but the genre itself. The working-class heroes feel reassured and vindicated by the contrived twang of a Kennebunkport fraud while Woody Guthrie (that tree-hugging commie!) rolls in his lonesome grave. It’s hard to blame the folk singers for turning inward, especially these days, when outward is so dispiriting.
Calling Todd a folk singer makes sense if you’re thinking not so much of Guthrie and Leadbelly but of Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. In other words, she traffics in soft, pretty enigmas, not rousing assertions, and her subjects are mostly domestic and confessional. She has a strange and gorgeous voice, nimble and austere, with the bright, woody resonance of an oboe; somehow it sounds deep even when she’s trilling ever upward in a dog-whistle register attempted by few singers not covering “Big Yellow Taxi.” Her diction is precise and formal, her accent unplaceable. Sometimes she emphasizes the wrong syllable to make the word fit the melody; sometimes she makes up words (“neverendless,” “compliances”) for the sake of rhythm and the occasional rhyme. She plays acoustic guitar with delicacy and inventiveness, so skillfully that you barely notice how cunningly it supports her voice.
On Manzanita, her fifth album, Todd is joined by several friends and fellow Angelenos, from the Beachwood Sparks to the Brian Jonestown Massacre, from Dead Meadow to Future Pigeon. The result is surprisingly cohesive, especially given the fact that Todd’s stylistic palette has never been more ambitious. There’s “The Way,” the CD’s only political song, in which backwards guitars and two basses commune all Magickal-like with Todd’s dolorous pronouncements about junk bonds and gas-guzzlers. Then there’s the flamenco-flavored “Tongue-Tied,” its classical guitar and mandolin peppered by handclaps. “Casa Nova,” the only track on the CD that isn’t completely captivating, is kinda rock-steady (as sung by the whitest of white girls, natch). With its barely-there piano and mordant romanticism, “Muscle, Bone & Blood” is a black-ice ballad worthy of Linda Thompson; the sprightly tempo and chamber-orchestra gloss of “The Last Night of Winter” evoke Burt Bacharach and Love. Although songs about the moon have become almost unbearably trite, especially when delivered by folky poetesses, no one could wish Todd’s “Luna Lune” away, and hippie-dippy bongos can’t spoil the grandeur of “My Room Is White.” In Todd’s capable hands, these tired tropes are redeemed, rendered new again.