In my brief time with martial arts, I have gleaned one principle: absorb and deflect. In self-defense, one does not create or force energy — that is the job of the aggressor. By allowing the other to take the first blow, the self appears meek but can surprise the aggressor by transferring the energy back. You strike; I absorb then deflect.
Little surprise, then, that the music of Mia Doi Todd accompanies my exercises perfectly. Looking like a slight waif and sounding like an ethereal whisper, she puts no effort into building up appearance. Instead she invites listeners in, absorbs their presences and them to draw their own conclusions. In tempo and texture, for example, she often hints at rhythm by merely playing voice against guitar, lulling the listener in. Here, she becomes free to shift counts and time unexpectedly, playing with expectation. The effect is invariably subtle yet indelible.
So, to call Todd’s La Ninja: Amor and Other Dreams of Manzanita a “remix record” somewhat underscores her intent and effect. While friends and labelmates (from Plug Research) indeed remix the heart of her most recent record Manzanita, their efforts feel less like experimental novelty or second-try marketing than like a blossoming conversation. Each producer steps forward and engages Todd with panoply of sounds, but she arises from the exchange with her distinct voice firmly intact. To contrast with her frequently spare instrumentation, Nobody drapes “What If We Do?” with the constant jangle of guitars, and Ammoncontact shimmers and shakes up “Muscle, Bone & Blood,” but both remain committed to her song structure: extending phrases to capture the listeners, then shifting instrumentation to move their attention. Even sparse approaches, such as Dungen‘s echoing drums and cymbal pulses that add a cavernous quality to “My Room is White” and Jimmy Tamborello‘s shaking of the Depeche Mode disease underneath “Deep at Sea,” create new dimensions for Todd’s voice without intruding on her presence. Instead of reinventing, the record reintroduces Todd in the company of others.
Todd cements these interactions with a handful of new pieces. “Amor,” “Kokoro” and the Beatles standard “Norwegian Wood” creak and swoon through as apt addenda to Manzanita. Of more interest is “Shikibu” (perhaps a reference to Murasaki Shikibu, the female writer of Tale of Genji, a story of national importance in the Japanese cultural canon and one of the oldest works of fiction in the world) a sparsely arranged yet densely performed instrumental filled with horns, sitar and tsuzumi percussion. Here, Todd strips the proceedings of her most notable attribute — her voice — but remains committed to her approach: acquiescing to the spirit of the music. As the track folds in on itself, fades out and closes the record, listeners can’t help but notice that one name clearly imprints itself on their mind: Todd. Now, when’s the last time a lack of presence has made such a strong impression?
Prefix review: Mia Doi Todd [The Ewe and the Eye] by Dan Nishimoto