Music

Kimya Dawson: Hidden Vagenda

Rob Horning

Kimya Dawson

Hidden Vagenda

Label: K
US Release Date: 2004-10-05
UK Release Date: 2004-11-08
Amazon
iTunes

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.