A reissue of Mia Doi Todd's first album, originally put out by tiny Xmas
Records and long unavailable, showcases one of the most extraordinary
voices in pop music, against a bare and subtle background of blues-picked
guitar. Laid to tape just under a decade ago with Brent Rademaker (who
also recorded 2005's Manzanita) and Joshua Schwartz, the album has a
wilder, weirder edge than Todd's later work; the discordant wail in
"Planting Time," for instance, reminds you more of Jana Hunter or Josephine
Foster than Joni Mitchell, and "Digging" has a skewed, Karen Dalton-ish
bluesiness. Todd sang then, as she sings now, with almost unimaginable
purity and lightness, but there seems to have been an edge in her early days that has been sanded down with time.
Todd's lyrics are imagistic, adding surreal tints to even the most ordinary
and personal songs. "Blue Moon," for instance, is set in the most plebeian
of situations a drive-in movie theater but it transcends the day-to-day with its disturbing images of towering redwoods and howling
wolves. "True Love" is a love song, simple enough in concept, but made
eccentric with long, luminous vocal tones. Later, analogies "Like a
wrecking ball/ You tore down my walls/ Like a choo-choo train/ You tunneled
through my brain" add off-kilter shadows to what seems like a simple
declaration of love.
There are some story songs as well, most notably "Johnny Appleseed," a
glancingly lovely set of verses that tell a tale of a man "haunted by a
recurring dream/ Of the girl you left hanging from an apple tree." This
song is included twice, once in its original skeletal version and later in
a remake that has the same instrumentation just guitar and voice but
somehow seems more resonant and full. There are alternate versions of
"Planting" and "Courting" on this reissue as well, both seeming a bit more
confident and assured, but not radically changed.
The oddest and most haunting song on this album, though, is "Nightblooming
Trilogy," whose middle section tells you everything you need to know about
the perils of fragile, feminine and self-destructive art. "The woman who
drank poison/ To keep her body frail/ The woman who drank poison/ To keep her
skin very pale/ She knew the night so much more intimately than I,"
Todd sings with her doll-like, perfect voice, against the regular strum of
guitar, and you have to wonder what she's gone through to create these sad, lovely songs.
Since The Ewe and the Eye, Mia Doi Todd has certainly advanced her
craft, her voice growing stronger, her songwriting becoming more complex
and allusive. Yet this early CD offers a fascinating glimpse of her
emerging talent, wilder and less constrained than she would become, but
already a very distinctive musical presence.