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Mia Doi Todd - La Ninja

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Artist: Mia Doi Todd

Album: La Ninja

Label: Plug Research

Review date: Apr. 30, 2006

Mia Doi Todd's Manzanita was, to a large degree, a work of collaboration, with Todd bringing in friends like Brian Glaze, Chris Gunst, DJ Nobody, members of Dead Meadow, and even the rock-steady Future Pigeon to frame her extraordinarily beautiful voice. With this collection of (mostly) remixes, she goes a step further, not just accepting contributions but allowing the total reimagination of her work. The project works – when it does – on two levels. It reminds us how lovely Manzanita's songs could be, not just in terms of Todd's voice, but in their subtle construction, minimalist arrangements and emotional evocativeness. But it also allows us to consider how artists of various sensibilities and experiences could react to these songs, liking different bits the best and interpreting them in radically divergent ways.

The artists here focus primarily on Manzanita's most stripped down songs, with three distinct versions of "My Room Is White" and two of "Muscle, Blood and Bone." Of the "Room" remixes, Dungen's is the most literal, surrounding the verse and chorus with tonal drum cadences, cymbal rolls and reverberating electronic tones, but leaving it otherwise untouched. The effect of these minor changes, though, seems to exceed the sum of its parts, transforming this Joni Mitchell reverie into something like late Pink Floyd. Josh Abram's work on the same cut under the alias Reminder hews even more closely to the original, embedding a clicking rim-shot rhythm and some burbling keyboards into its fluid textures. Flying Lotus takes the most liberties here, fracturing Todd's vocals into bits and skewering her melodies on a skittering, electro-rhythm; he alone seems to create something wholly different from the song's elements.

The "Muscle, Blood and Bone" remixes are more freeform. Ammoncontact narrows his musical focus to a single string riff and a set of piano chords, making them dance on a slinky, marimba-punctuated world beat. Chessie, the DC-based electro duo of Stephen Gardener and Ben Bailes, seem also to be transfixed by the song’s piano chord progressions, haunting them with sonar-like blips of surpassing loneliness and distance.

Outside of Dungen, the two best known collaborators here are probably Postal Service predecessor Dntel and DJ Nobody. Dntel remakes "Deep at Sea" for Todd, putting a very post-new wave keyboard beat under her fluting vocals. It's a bit like mixing Depeche Mode with jazz folk, but works surprisingly well, enhancing the drama in the song without overwhelming it. Nobody's raga-tinged take on "What If We Do?" is an album highlight, linking Todd's two idols – Shankar and Joni Mitchell – in a wonderfully organic way.

My favorite song from Manzanita – "The Last Night of Winter" – fares less well, needlessly complicated by electronic trills and blasts. It could be that Todd got this one so right on her own that anything else would sound excessive. It could be that more complicated song structures respond less well to experiment. But in any case, I find myself skipping this one every time.

In addition to the remixes, Todd turns in a breezy cover of "Norwegian Wood" and two originals. "Kokoro" is particularly beautiful, with its bossa nova-light guitar strumming and pure, unforced melodic line. "Shikubu" is less structured but nicely atmospheric, a mélange of microtonal sitar and stop-start drum rhythms.

Mia Doi Todd is one of those artists that seem to function not just as creators in their own rite, but as connecting links between other musicians. Through collaborations, she brings together the psychedelic electro of Nobody, the lysergic country pop of Beachwood Sparks survivors, the raga-rock textures of Shankar and the sophisticated jazz phrasings of Joni Mitchell. As good as La Ninja is on its own terms, it may be even more important in the way it reinforces the ties between disparate musicians within her orbit. She's the center of one of the more interesting pop electronic scenes around these days – and this album demonstrates, through the strength of her songs and her willingness to let them out into the world, why this should be.

By Jennifer Kelly

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