Mia Doi Todd is one of those artists that I’ve been meaning to familiarize myself with for a long time. I mean, come on, acoustic guitars and quirky lyrics? I’m usually all over that. But whether pumping Iron or drinking Wine, Todd’s classically-trained pipes and evocative ruminations always seemed to be forever dancing just around the corner and out of sight, commanding just enough attention to remain on the radar with promises to investigate one day. I’d heard great things about The Golden State and Manzanita, fell in love with her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”, but I never went and sought her out. So the extended re-release of her 1997 debut, The Ewe and the Eye, recorded when she was still an undergrad, has been the perfect carrot to lure me out of my procrastination. I was a just a freshman myself at the time; here’s another chance to get in on the ground floor.
So how does The Ewe and the Eye sound after so much anticipation? A little underwhelming, truth be told — but not without good and fair reasons, and certainly not enough to deter one from moving forward through the rest of her back catalog. The inclusion of three recently re-recorded tracks shows just how much Todd has grown in a few short years as a vocalist and performer, even when utilizing the same bare-bones, one guitar-one voice arrangement. The stark, empty room ambience of “Planting Time” is jarringly lonely in the age of indie rock orchestras. The 1997 version is remarkable, wise beyond its years and the self-indulgent pap we all were guilty of before we could drink legally. “Wildflowers grow, and I think they know / That their sons and daughters will appear here next year”, Todd sings with her old soul. But the 2005 rendition is vastly superior. Not only is her voice stronger, richer, and her guitar playing more capable and assured, but it now sounds like she’s singing to someone other than herself. Picture a performer hunched over her guitar, eyes fixed squarely on the fretboard as she keeps a safe distance from the microphone. Now imagine the same performer playing the same song, looking directly at you or at least some abstract point in the space above the audience. She’s turned outward in a posture of communication, dialogue. That’s the difference between the two versions of “Planting”.
With that same spirit and maturity, “Courting” does justice to the combination of poetic (“If I were a nightingale / My songs would float like a trail / Behind you”), silly (“If I were an orangutan / I’d want you to come and hang / Around my jungle”), and clever (“If I were just a casual acquaintance / I’d renew my vow of determined patience / Every day”) lines. On the original, it’s hard to hear what Todd is singing, not because she’s singing quietly or mumbling, but because it sounds less focused. The rest of The Ewe and the Eye is pleasant, even pleasing, but never manages to reach the heights I imagine Todd is further on her way to achieving now. The odd, jazzy chord progressions and sensuousness of “Nightblooming Trilogy”, the relatively propulsive “True Love” and its fabulously goofy/innocent simile “Like a choo-choo train / You tunneled through my brain”, the deceptively simple “Autumn”, shades of Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega: they all feel like exquisite seeds, but seeds nonetheless. Fittingly, “Johnny Appleseed” is the third re-recorded track, wherein Todd sings to her protagonist “Dumbfounded by their kindness and embarrassed by your shyness / You slipped out the back door at the first chance”. Perhaps Mia Doi Todd, in her Yale years, felt a kinship with Appleseed’s modesty and altruistic motives. And surely, over time, the seeds she planted on The Ewe and the Eye have and will continue to grow and bear more and better fruit.