Kimya Dawson: Hidden Vagenda

[20 October 2004]

By Rob Horning

Having risen to prominence as a member of scatological brat-folk outfit the Moldy Peaches and released a trio of bedroom-recorded solo records, Kimya Dawson now finds an appropriate home on K Records, many of whose artists share her fetish for artless emotional directness and somewhat contrived amateurism (these are all able, professional songwriters, after all). While Dawson’s music is sometimes billed as anti-folk or post-folk, these labels are misleading, as they imply there is some kind of establishment folk scene against which to rebel. But the term anti-folk is appropriate in the sense that the style often seems insular and self-satisfied; it’s anti regular folks. And when regular folks are spending their limited music-buying dollars on records by game-show contestants and reality-TV stars, that may not be such a bad thing to be.

Rather than record in the bedroom again, on this record, Dawson is backed by other musicians, most frequently Joe Gore (who plays guitar and, occasionally, a toy piano), drummer Brian Mantia, and bassist Arion Salazar (from Third Eye Blind, of all things), but dozens of people, including Daniel Johnston (who’s obviously one of Dawson’s major influences, down to her timbre and pronunciations) contribute backing vocals—many songs have what sound like drunken, tuneless choirs backing sing-along choruses, and others, like “My Heroes” and “Lullaby for the Taken” are augmented by demented voices made through tape manipulation. But the presence of all these guests does little to disrupt the album’s claustrophobic feel, a quality Dawson deliberately evokes through her use of repetitive child-like melodies (repeating from song to song as well as within them) and a frail, whispery singing voice. Depending on your own personal phobias, this approach leads either to a powerful, palpable intensity that’s unremitting, or to a suffocating bathos that’s maddeningly distracting from the words of the songs themselves, which ultimately prove inventive and compelling by anyone’s standards.

Also important is whether or not you can suspend disbelief and accept the preternaturally innocent point of view Dawson frequently assumes as a useful artistic device and not a precious, irritating crutch. The first two songs, “It’s Been Raining” a plain-spoken song about mourning, and “Fire”, a green-themed protest anthem set over wall-of-drone guitar, confront you immediately with this choice, as its lyrics walk the thin line between simple and simple-minded. On first listen, I was undecided, but after a few more times through I was completely won over; what seemed insipid at first started to sound haunting, inspired. The jumpy, logorrheic “Viva La Persistence”, and the cataloging “Parade”, however, spill into poetry-slam ostentation, and the ham-fisted, ironic reading of “Anthrax (Powerballad Version)” doesn’t work—because it wavers between sincerity and insincerity, it never draws you in, and dully drags on instead, with a completely gratuitous mock-guitar solo that feels like wasted space on an album otherwise packed with charming moments.

Dawson excels at redeeming unpromising approaches. Usually insidery meta-songs about the music industry or the hardships of being a musician signals that someone’s officially lost touch with her audience, but “Singing Machine” manages not to alienate, thanks to an irresistible melody and a unlikely homage to Julian Lennon, which is bizarre enough to shift the lyrics into metaphoric terrain. “I Will Never Forget”, an epic about high-school frustrations presents seemingly trivial concerns with such creepily authentic emotion—think Leonard Cohen cut from the cheerleading squad—that you’re to recognize that all emotional pain is really beyond measurement, incomparable. “Five Years” seems too personal to be accessible, yet its relentless wordplay finally sweeps you along, drawing you in and urging you to revel in the sounds of words themselves, and find a level of inexpressible meaning in that. And “You Love Me” is the kind of plaintive, self-deprecating love song that has been done to death, from the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” straight on through to the early Sebadoh albums, but Dawson makes it work, setting the straightforward confessional lyrics over off-key whistling and the most melancholy rendition of the “It’s Raining” lullaby.

Admittedly, many of these songs sound indistinguishable from each other, and the threat of Dawson’s voice suddenly seeming completely cloying is omnipresent. That may sound as though she’s not taking enough chances, sticking to carefully to a style she’s discovered for herself, but in fact, it suggests her whole career may turn out to be a big courageous risk, sustained by the kind of stubbornness that every great artist has, forcing you to reckon with her redundancies rather than pander. Here’s hoping she stays uncompromising.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/dawsonkimya-hidden/