Quietly, unassumingly, Mia Doi Todd has spent the past decade making a convincing case for herself as one of our premier singer-songwriters. Able to combine intimacy with formality as few others can, she writes sexual, confessional lyrics comparable to an updated Joni Mitchell (one for whom Echo Park is the new Laurel Canyon). But when she drops an “awesome,” she means it the way a modernist poet would, not the way a Valley Girl would; it’s not a synonym for “rad.” Likewise with her voice, classically trained and often possessed of enough cold distance to merit an entry in Nico’s marble index. Capable of enough clinical languor to fill a dozen Godard films, it can nonetheless shift at a moment’s notice to a milky, nourishing richness that reveals the trembling behind the facade.
Add to all of this the fact that her arrangements frequently tend toward a barren minimalism, often just voice and acoustic guitar or piano, and Mia Doi Todd does not leap to the forefront of musical artists in desperate need, or even probable likelihood, of remixing. Yet that’s exactly what La Ninja: Amor and Other Dreams of Manzanita is: a few new originals, but mostly a remix album based on her wonderful but underappreciated 2005 album Manzanita. It’s either a bold gambit or a surprisingly irreverent and playful one, and while it can’t be called a stunning success, it does effectively reimagine Todd’s songs in unpredictable ways.
It also inexplicably overlooks some of Manzanita‘s strongest moments. The ominous, bass-driven “The Way” and the reggaefied “Casa Nova” are ignored, while the breezy, folk-tinged pop of “The Last Night of Winter” is hollowed out into a sprawling ambient soundscape by DJs Campanella and Hellie, losing much in the translation. The rigorous piano ballad “Muscle, Bone & Blood” receives two workouts; in the Chessie remix, it too takes ambient form, but to somewhat less diminished effect, given the unadorned style it already had. The same song in the hands of Ammoncontact finally gets a drumbeat, but the smooth-jazz sax that replaces Todd for the vocal line relegates the track to Kenny G-dom.
More effectively, trip-hop beats animate Nobody’s take on “What if We Do?” and Flying Lotus’ spin on “My Room Is White”, unleashing both tracks from their contemplative mannerisms. The latter song in particular is sliced and diced into nearly unrecognizable form, with snippets of Todd’s defamiliarized vocals floating through the mix like lost phonemes, which occasionally take refuge together in brief discernable phrases. It works magnificently, outshining the two other remixes of the song, both of which show more deference to the original structure, leaving it intact but adding to its spartan arrangement. Dungen grafts on drums and reverberating guitar flickers, while Reminder’s major addition is a slinky percussive rhythm that changes the momentum from a crawl to a stutter-step. Whatever redundancy accompanies three remixes of a single track, they complement one another well, revealing the potential unlocked when Todd’s finished tracks become raw material. Perhaps the standout remix is Dntel’s version of “Deep at Sea”, in which the stately restraint of the original gives way to layers of pulsating, snoring electronics that transform a folk song into something out of the Berlin catalog.
Among the remixes reside a few somewhat perfunctory new tracks. A “Norwegian Wood” cover inspires little but nostalgia for the P.M. Dawn version of several years back, and “Shikibu” dishes up a serviceable but unmemorable slice of instrumental psychedelic minimalism. The acoustic “Kokoro”, though, stands out and would fit easily on Todd’s early albums; its couplet “Extreme happiness brings extraordinary pain / Me in my fortress, I bleed just the same” could well be her motto.
La Ninja isn’t the first time Todd has shown herself willing to experiment; on her 2002 major-label debut (and swansong) The Golden State she rerecorded several of her earlier songs and fleshed them out with full bands. La Ninja certainly supersedes that album in terms of reach, even if it ultimately fails to establish a strong presence on its own right. Still, Todd is to be commended for refusing to adhere to any stereotypical notions of wispy singer-songwriter fragility. If her ninja act falls a bit short of, say, Sho Kosugi, at least she’s kicking her own songs to smithereens and toying with the rubble.