Mia Doi Todd has a voice that flickers like flame, unfurling at the
slightest breath of air into acrobatic plumes and flourishes, then drawing back
into itself in calmer moments, steady and free of vibrato. High and sweet, she
can mimic a piccolo’s purity. In lower, jazzier registers, she sounds more like
a clarinet, sliding softly over the half tones. Todd’s singing is so remarkable
that listeners become transfixed by it, failing, in their concentration, to
notice the subtle way her songs are put together or the aptness of the
Todd has, perhaps, struggled with this a bit. Her last album, Morning Music, was all instrumentals,
and on this ninth full-length, she seems to be pulling back from pure vocal
intensity. She floats here, mostly, over downtempo reveries in various Latin
idioms (“Paraty”, “Gracias a la Vida”). She sings sweetly, without much drama,
to the lilting rhythms of Laurel Canyon pop (“My Baby Lives in Paris”). She follows the contours of slow-bending
melodies with a fluting, fluttering serenity, never rushing, never straining,
never ruffling the surface of her pretty songs. Where Manzanita‘s loveliness sometimes dropped away to reveal shocking
depth of feeling, these songs seem to surf atop the froth. They’re easy to
listen to, but hard to pin down. Where is the muscle, blood and bone?
Cosmic Ocean Ship is
carefully arranged, with restrained but pertinent contributions from a small
group of musicians. Gabe Noel does some particularly nice work on acoustic
bass, undergirding Todd’s breeziest melodies with hip-shifting sensuality. The
drums, too, by Andres Rentiera, are varied and good, and Adam MacDougall’s
piano is lovely, especially on lounge-y, theatrical “Under the Sun.” And yet,
despite the skill of everyone involved, the album skates along on good feeling.
It doesn’t cut very deep. It doesn’t take any risks.
The most striking song on the disc comes near the end, and it’s a cover.
“Canto de Iemanja,” by Baden Powell and Vinicious de Moraes, is smouldery and
mysterious and touching in a way the rest of the album is not. It’s full of
drones and sudden dissonances, unexpected crescendos and vapor trails of
overtones. It feels dangerous and not-quite-perfect, but so alive. The rest of
the album might pleasantly slip by on a sunny afternoon, but this song forces
you to sit up and listen.
DOWNLOAD: “Canto de
Iemanja,” JENNIFER KELLY