Mia Doi Todd is an acquired taste, and at this point she’s not about to go crawling fawningly towards the mainstream by reneging on her now characteristic style. Instead, the Yale-educated L.A. singer-songwriter is content to write well-constructed, tightly arranged art-folk songs that deal with her familiar themes. For established fans, GEA should be received with pleasure … even adoration … since quality is only getting better; but this isn’t the record that’s going to turn Todd into a household name. You get the impression she doesn’t mind so much. GEA is whimsical and mythical, lovelorn but sure-footed.
In a similar manner to her 2005 album The Golden State, GEA finds Todd utilizing a fuller array of instrumentation than the sparse guitar-and-voice of her early work, and her latest album Manzanita. Though the backbone remains the gently-strummed acoustic guitar (and of course, the rallying point of Todd’s distinctive, emotive voice), the sound is filled out roundly with a small string section, a few woodwinds and the occasionall pattering tom. The chamber arrangements suit the fragility of Todd’s songs, but also allow them to occasionally expand. String drones provide a hypnotic backdrop for a number of songs, notably the opening epic “River of Life / The Yes Song”. “Night of a Thousand Kisses” is backed by a full analog hum, all woodwind and flutes, creating a shimmering Midsummer Night’s Dream atmosphere. “Esperar Es Caro” starts from an airy, carefree strum to build to a somewhat dissonant cacophony by the track’s end.
Existing at the hippy edge of freak-folk, less freaky than arty, Todd is also at her best when she’s at the edge of folk too. “Sleepless Nights” channels blues tonalities to create a strong forward motion, an influence shared by the didgeridoo-groove of “Can I Borrow You?” The song’s jittery and compelling, the refrain becoming a kind of mantra; Todd seems to be convincing herself of the truth of it, “We found a meaning”, through the repetition. Jai-Ya! But there’s also the requisite animal song, here “Big Bad Wolf & Black Widow Spider”. It must be the season for folk songs about wolves, what with Phosphorescent and Bon Iver contributing arresting meditations on the animals. Todd’s less interested in the wolf than an allegorical conversation in which menace (perceived) finds a companion “on the lonely road”. It can’t compete with “Wolves”.
The major criticism that has been leveled against Todd — the one that sticks, anyway — is that her music and arrangements are a little too similar-sounding, that they lack enough variation to keep impatient listeners entranced through an album or across a career. GEA does its best to rebut this criticism by incorporating a range of confluent arrangements. And while for the most part this is successful, a few songs fail to take flight. The problem may be length; a number of songs go on for one or two verses too many. Though this does contribute to a certain hypnotic atmosphere, it means that, now and then, the album loses its punch. “Wolf Reprise”, a recap of the earlier “Big Bad Wolf & Black Widow Spider”, is an example — though the groove’s still softly menacing, without words or new ideas it seems somewhat superfluous. Once or twice, however, Todd uses the contrast to her advantage. “In the End” begins ploddingly, just Todd’s voice and acoustic guitar, but in the second verse, a viola begins to play a gorgeous counter-melody in the background. The interplay between voice and instrument really enriches the song.
Still, there’s plenty of the serenity and swooping drama that you might hope for in a Mia Doi Todd album. The singer has matured into a compelling songwriter, using not only her wide-ranging voice but a wider range of instrumentation and influences to create a fairly impressive new collection of songs. If you know and like Mia Doi Todd’s work, you’ll want to take a listen to GEA.