The last thing you would expect from Kimya Dawson, with her latest project the Bundles, is an earnest, cut-to-the-chase statement of purpose making sense of why she does what she does. And yet, there it is, right in the middle of the band’s self-titled debut album on the song “Over the Moon”, where Dawson makes clear that her schtick is anything but a novelty act:
And maybe you have expectations
Of what my next steps should be
As if my success depends
On leaving this reality
And everything that I am doing
Isn’t a means to an end
It’s the means of creating
A meaningful existence
And I just want to sing with my friends
This moment of clarity comes out of nowhere, as Dawson’s sing-songy, but almost defiant verses follow up free-associating lyrics about henna, moon men, and lucky clover sung by her likeminded bandmates Jeffrey Lewis and Karl Blau. In effect, Dawson is literally explaining the point that the Bundles’ outsider music makes loud and clear, that the band unapologetically follows its own set of rules.
These lines also give context to Dawson’s idiosyncratic, seemingly random career. While you wouldn’t think the formula of amateurish playing, child-like vocals, and absurd humor (with the occasional scatological joke) would make for anything enduring, Dawson’s willful playfulness has helped her become one of the more distinctive and easily recognizable voices in the indie underground. Sure, it was easy to underestimate and write off Dawson — along with the NYC antifolk scene in which Lewis also participated — when she first gained notice in the early 2000s as part of the iconoclastic duo Moldy Peaches, which seemed at the time little more than an entertaining gag, what with the on-stage costumes and faux-scandalous ditties like “Who’s Got the Crack?”. However, if Dawson cared about validation, her stick-to-itiveness definitely paid off with her transformation from cult obscurity to best-selling artist through her contributions to the chart-topping, zeitgeist-tapping Juno soundtrack, on which, you could argue, her songs set a tone and mood that carried the movie, not the other way around.
As the mini-manifesto of “Over the Moon” suggests, Dawson has settled into a comfort zone with the Bundles, bolstered by fellow tricksters Lewis and Blau. The album is a surprisingly easy listen, maybe without the highs of the Moldy Peaches’ signature hit “Anyone Else But You”, but also with fewer (though still some) of the wincing lows that come with antifolk. While Dawson is the best-known and most charismatic member of the group, the Bundles really are a collaborative effort, where a genuine affection shines through in the natural and effortless interplay of the band’s modest, acoustic-esque arrangements. With its refrain of “Don’t forget about your friends”, the lead track “A Common Chorus” conveys a generosity of spirit right from the get-go, as the band’s infectious camaraderie reaches out to the listener for some audience participation. The same sense of bonhomie comes through on the strummy “In the Beginning”, which finds kindred spirits in twee pioneers Television Personalities. The TVPs comparison is most apt for the Bundles, since their music has just an undertone of melancholy to complement the sweetness, without getting as heavy and dark as some of Dawson’s solo material has been in the past.
Yet even with the wise-cracking toned down, just how well the Bundles straddle the line between tedious in-joking and witty banter, between eliciting grimaces and smiles depends on one’s tolerance for lazily absurd rhymes — “Funions and bunions,” anyone? — and bathroom humor. The album still has its fair share of cringing moments and A.D.D. non-sequiturs, most likely side-by-side the best moments on any single song. Indeed, one of the album’s better offerings, “Metal Mouth”, is open to such mixed judgments: Revisiting the Juno genre of alternateen pop, the track is either a little too gross or awkwardly lovable, with Lewis’s come-ons (“Let’s make out/With our metal mouths/Our braces will embrace”) matched by Dawson’s adolescent melodramatics (“Locking us together/Forever”). Of course, it’s hard to think of a project that includes Dawson and Lewis without the shock and “ewwws”, and it’s not like you don’t know any better. The Bundles are happy just to follow wherever their unique, usually vivid, sometimes perverse pop imaginations take them all by themselves, but there are enough good reasons for you to go along for the ride, too.