[14 February 2013]
Every once in a while, an artist emerges who is so twee and charming, that the music just makes a seasoned listener want to puke. The tropes of innocence and experience, of recalling other albums and creating new distinctive sounds comes off as a paint-by-numbers exercise more than a real human expression. Such is the case of Nataly Dawn.
Sure, she’s going to sell a lot of records. She raised more than $100,000 on her Kickstarter campaign to make How I Knew Her. She has a strong fan base thanks to her past work doing fey covers with Pomplamoose. She’s hip to a fault, and it is a fault.
On How I Knew Her, Dawn touches all the bases of heaviness. There are songs about failed love, death, religion, being a woman, and such all wrapped in a pretty box of art. There are classical references, quirky rhythms, and oddball singing as if something serious is happening. But the mix comes off as self-indulgence and childish. It’s the aural equivalent of having a grown up use finger paints to create a picture of a rainbow. Presumably, the work will look more like a real rainbow than a child’s version, but in the end, it won’t be as good and the image will be missing something.
Perhaps this harsh criticism is unwarranted. After all, don’t we all want to recapture our youth and be a serious adult at the same time? The problem is that Dawn’s pastiche of Regina Spektor / Ingrid Michaelson / Fiona Apple / Kimya Dawson reduces the work of more talented artists to a parody. It’s a truism that the more distinctive an artist, the easier it is to lampoon. Just ask Weird Al. Dawn does a Weird Al version of these more adventurous folk rock pop singer-songwriters, but she is not trying to be funny.
So, when she sings “long running prayers / to keep her from going insane” as she compares self-loathing to “flesh eating monsters” on “Long Running Joke”, there is nothing at which we could laugh. Dawn’s self-deprecation comes off as cute more than real. The big, echoey instrumentation adds a circus aura so that when she sings the last line of “we’re all the same”, we know it has all been just a show. Let’s all act that we hate ourselves to show how much we really love ourselves and hence those in real pain must just be acting so we don’t have to care about them, she argues. Ugh!
The carnivalesque instrumentation is even more confusing on “Still a Believer”, where Dawn provides a lively version of her religion (re: “that life is a test / and only the best will be spared”) versus the more traditional views of her grandmother. So by implication, if only the best are spared, most people are going to hell or some sort of purgatory. And Dawn sings this to a happy beat without a sense of irony? Strange and judgemental, but not in a good way.
I don’t believe most people are going to hell, but they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Dawn seems well-intentioned. She’s trying to create serious music that’s fun to hear and addresses serious topics. Her fans helped her raise the money to employ a talented band of side musicians to flesh out her self-penned tunes. But repeated listening to this album is a worldly torment in itself. One doesn’t have to wait for the afterlife, or death, for such an experience.