Call it quiet fire. Authority. Charisma. Mia Doi Todd’s coolly tranquil
voice caresses the air, but her trenchant gaze holds you, riveted. She descends
to earth again, still piercing your eyes, and drops poetry of hunger and need,
the food of love. You don’t recoil; you’re on the edge of your seat. You feel
like a slave. And not so strangely, it feels good.

Todd’s folk-related music has been around for a while, but not so long that its mysteries have been divulged or nearly exhausted. Proof of which is Manzanita, the deceptively waiflike chanteuse’s fifth solo release, flanking collaborations with the not-so-unlikely likes of the electro-pop unit Dntel and the avantish DJ Nobody, among a few eclectic others. A mostly stripped-down affair featuring Todd’s acoustic guitar and piano and precisely pristine voice, Manzanita finds Todd at an interesting juncture in her musical career, and perhaps on her path toward entirely different creative realms.

Manzanita’s spare glories came about not completely through personal choice; after getting her big major-label chance with 2002’s comparatively opulent The Golden State on Sony Records, produced by high-profile sound man Mitchell Froom, Todd was unceremoniously dropped by the label. On Manzanita, all decisions on the writing, arranging, recording and producing were made by Todd alone, with some help from the album’s producer, Brent Rademaker of Beachwood Sparks.

Although Sony had obviously signed Todd as a “credibility” project, she wasn’t all that surprised by the company’s decision to part ways with her a year later — nor was she fully bummed out. She even defends Sony to a certain degree: “They knew while we were making the record that it was not gonna be huge.” And according to Todd, she and Froom were for the most part left alone to craft the music without interference. “They trusted Mitchell, and I was definitely involved. There was no child in the scenario, or a princess. But it wasn’t me calling the shots. Whereas this time it was, more so.

“I’ve matured as an artist,” she says. “The Sony thing definitely enabled that.” Manzanita was executive-produced by Todd herself, which means she obtained the services of her friend Rademaker to play bass and record and mix at his basement studio in Echo Park; the tracks are also aided by guests including L.A. dubsters Future Pigeon, D.C. hard-rock maestros Dead Meadow and members of the Tyde and Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Unlike Froom’s more ornately detailed settings, the songs on Manzanita are generally spare affairs, more about the songs themselves and a bit less about the arrangements. “These songs are a little simpler, unlike earlier ones, which tended to be long and more complex — though there are two six-minute songs on this album [‘The Way’ and ‘The Last Night of Winter’].” While the bulk of the set comprises short, elusive tunes featuring just Todd’s rounded-crystal voice and minor-chord guitar and piano, she does somewhat oddly begin the album with the ponderously doomy “The Way,” on which she wails and military-industrially protests over the backward guitars and ominous stomp of Dead Meadow. Though it gives no indication of the album’s general sound, the song’s dolorous dread does serve to set the tone for what is to come; it also offers a good example of Todd’s complexity and the quietly insistent sense of peculiar symmetry that takes her music out of the mere-trad-folkie into thrillingly new hybrid realms. She’s just a bit different, in other words.

“Well,” Todd says, “there was an earlier sequence for the songs; the guys thought maybe I shouldn’t put ‘The Way’ first, because it’s not representative of the album as a whole and it’d throw people off. But there was no place else it would fit, sonically — it had to start that way or it couldn’t be on the album, almost. It was one of the first songs on the album that I wrote. And it just had to be first.”

“What If We Do,” almost perversely, follows with a rolling guitar and Todd softly crooning to a potential lover to take a chance on life. The Future Pigeon–backed “Casa Nova” brings an easy-skanking vibe to one of Todd’s semitypical reflections on the shortcomings of a former flame (and her own); lest we forget that the sun is shining and the air is free, “The Last Night of Winter” comes on all Kodachrome horn- and string-drenched to lift our eyes to the sky.

You’ll most likely be moved, however, during the moments on Manzanita when Todd sits alone with just her guitar or piano and chimes your ears with her tales of everyday life — of the regrets, the longing, the recollected ecstasies, the relief of humdrum routine in their wake, the joy of swimming and not drowning in the sea of life. The classically trained singer offers these songs/stories with a vocal tone of startling purity and an unsettling calm that makes their often bleak and always tersely poetic images all the more devastating. She’ll sing, “I need you now to abandon me,” and you know it’s true, and it’s breaking your heart.

All of which is but a small part of the ethereal enigma named Mia Doi Todd.
She’s also a frequent collaborator in projects from the electronic/DJ world, such
as singing on Jimmy Tamborello’s Dntel EP Anywhere Anyone and DJ
Nobody’s upcoming disc, both also on Plug Research; Nobody recently did a remix
of Manzanita’s “What If We Do”; live dates have found her frequently performing
alongside such non-folkie types as the electronic duo Languis, sampling genius
Daedelus and other luminaries on L.A.’s underground dub, electronic, dance and
hip-hop scenes — all of whom, she says, have influenced her thinking about songwriting
far more than traditional folk musicians. For her next record, she wants to make
something more like a Sade record, “where it’s almost dub, and just really simple
songs on top of it.”

There’s simple, and there’s simple.

MIA DOI TODD | Manzanita (Plug Research)

Mia Doi Todd performs at the Knitting Factory, Friday, May 20.

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