[13 October 2003]
Sorry, that title is misleading. Kimya Dawson strums acoustic guitar and sometimes sings, with the kids she has a day-job babysitting doing back-up vocals. In terms of sales, I don’t mean to suggest she’s going to sweep Britney Spears or even Radiohead off the popular commercial consciousness.
But make no mistake: Kimya Dawson has an astounding talent. You might miss it because the recording of it is so lo-fi or, as is more likely with someone who’s likely to buy an indie album like this in the first place, because she’s so nice, unassuming, and unpretentious. Dawson doesn’t want to sell a million albums to 5,000 people. She wants to give a million troubled young people (or more) a great big hug and tell them that she once had problems, too, but now she’s okay and they’re going to be okay, too. It’s heartwarming when life hands out a heaping load of astounding talent to someone this nice. Because, while neither of these albums is great (My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess arguably comes close, though), Dawson’s vision is so distinct that it’s still clear that she’s a genuinely inspired artist. Pure craft, no matter how perfect or enjoyable, could never be so wonderfully idiosyncratic without a rare inspiration backing it up.
It’s partly that inspiration that gives Dawson an artistic voice so singular that the closest description I could manage was that it’s a distinctly female combination of Woody Guthrie and the Beastie Boys. Someone who listened to these two CDs with me amended that Dawson also “has the heart of a Buddha”. Which rounds out the description of Dawson pretty well. But if that still doesn’t seem like an actual sound, let me explain.
First off, both Dawson and Woody Guthrie sing sparse songs, with simple acoustic guitar strummings and whatever other music there is being mainly an accompaniment to the lyrics that are the songs’ raisons d’etre. But that’s true of a lot of music. Yet not since Woody Guthrie has a singer-songwriter of such songwriting stature been such an unabashedly amateurish singer. Dawson’s voice is more nuanced than Guthrie’s; she sighs and whispers and talks and half-sings with real expressiveness. But the not-unpleasing flatness at the edges of her voice let you know that Dawson is a genuine amateur who talk-sings, not a professional talk-singer like Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. Like a good actress, she portrays the full spectrum of emotions through phrasing and cadence and inflection, not by hitting musical notes.
She earns the Beastie Boys comparison because her wordplay is so dense and learned, and casts its net so wide and is so un-thuggish that Paul’s Boutique springs instantly to mind. Between Dawson’s two new albums, the literary references alone range from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories on Knock-Knock Who? to Judith Rossner’s novel of homicide, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, on the other album (hint: the latter reference comes along in “Being Cool”).
She could go toe-to-toe and trade pun-for-pun (sorry) with Elvis Costello. If you haven’t heard her albums yet and don’t take my word that they’re chock full of comparable instances of wordplay and references, check out the lyrics for yourself at www.kimyadawson.com.
Just as importantly, though, she also knows, better than Costello, when a straightforward, unadorned line can be more powerful than the cleverest wordplay. For instance, on “Everything’s Alright”, a song from her debut, I’m Sorry That Sometimes I’m Mean, which she reprises here on her second album, Dawson sings: “Why do I always pretend I can spoon a guy and still be his friend?”. Like Prince singing “You were so strange / You didn’t even have the decency to change the sheets”, the sentiment and expression is so effective and simple that it makes you wonder why no one has sung it before. So, sure, she’s relentlessly clever when she wants to be, but she also has enough mature intelligence to realize when cleverness is better kept in check.
But leaving a description of Dawson off at her having maturity and intelligence, in addition to a breathtakingly clever faculty with words, would still miss the point: what makes her truly shine, what truly makes her worthy of the attention of everyone who rolls their eyes at Ben Folds or Dennis Miller, is that immense Buddha’s heart that shines through her densest layers of metaphors and wordplay. For all her cleverness, she is soulful and not just soulful, but soulful in the nicest way possible. Lightnin’ Hopkins was soulful, too, but he didn’t sound like the kind of person you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Kimya Dawson is the kind of person who will make you chicken soup and take it over to your house when you’re sick. And she’s not all saccharine joy, either; her songs stare things like sexual abuse, alcoholism, and death straight in the eye. It’s just that Dawson fights monsters without becoming a monster herself.
Which isn’t to suggest that Dawson is infallible. Of course not. Songs as lyrically dense as hers need some sort of final point to justify the listener making the effort to follow them along their twists and turns. When the songs don’t click, they’re pieces of clever, humanistic ambiance that don’t really have points. It’s like reading into the stream of consciousness of an interesting mind before it has the chance to polish or organize its thoughts. Wit, non-sequiturs, and emotions bounce off of each other until gravity takes over and everything peters out. For comparison, take the first two songs from Knock-Knock Who?: they’re both filled with pop culture asides and have rhythm-filled lyrics, but “Nobody’s Hippie” strings the wit of individual quips along a line of continuous narrative as the singer mopes while her “best medicine’s / Back in the sack with his Burger King girlfriend”. Line-for-line, “Great Crap” is even more amusing (“He’s the recipe for the perfect friend for me / Axl Rosehips and Richard Persimmons in a soothing pot of Craig T. Gunner Half Nelson”), but what does it all mean?
Still, it can give a voyeuristic buzz to watch an interesting mind at work. And trying to spot all her references can be as fun as looking for Waldo; I admit I got pretty excited when she referenced Lion-O and Mumm-Ra (as in—in sepulcher voice—“I’m Mumm-Ra!” How could you forget?). But I’m not going to recommend a song (or album) just on the strength of it making me dig out my old Thundercats videos.
But I would recommend a song that has lines like “Jesus He came and turned water to wine / I turned it back and now everything’s fine”, lines that, incidentally, come from the same song as the one with the Thundercats reference. And so it goes on the maddeningly personal Knock-Knock Who?: some lines stick while others are just amusing and too many of the songs rise or fall on the strength of their hodgepodge collections of one-liners. I can imagine quite a few intelligent, sensitive people, the kind who obsess about artists and who compare studio and live versions note-for-note and word-for-word, losing happy weeks decoding the more oblique references on even the lesser Knock-Knock Who? album. But I also think such listening is anathema to the spirit of art and instead hints at being a music nerd.
So My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess is the better album of the two because the songs have more focus and generally make points. But how do the two albums stack up to everything else that’s out there? Well, if you take Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique as near-perfect tens, then Knock-Knock Who? would be a six and My Cute Fiend Sweet Princess would be an eight. Still, even that one eight and those comparisons don’t do full justice to the immensity of Dawson’s gift nor the uniqueness of her art. Maybe it would help if I added that I can imagine these two current albums being edited down to form a single nine, or even—yes, it’s possible—10. Or maybe if I mentioned that Kimya Dawson is an artist I will be recommending to friends and family. Or that her albums come in lieu of the great big hug that she can’t personally give to a million troubled teens. For everyone’s sake, I hope—however unlikely this is—that a million such teenagers hug them, and her, back.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dawsonkimya-knock/