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Cosmic Ocean Ship
City Zen / Virtual Label
Format: CD / LP / MP3
Release Date: May 17, 2011
By Doug Simpson June 3, 2011

On Mia Doi Todd’s ninth project, Cosmic Ocean Ship, the Los Angeles singer/songwriter wears her heart on her handmade sleeve. These 10 tracks – eight originals and two Latin American pop tunes – arrive replete with summery romance, where youthful souls unite on foreign beaches, sip frothy drinks, eat sweet fruits, and look longingly in each others’ eyes as the sun sets. Ostensibly, Todd declares her lanky, loungey 42-minute paean to self-absorbed pleasure to be a plea for peace in times of unrest. Yet, for the most part, Todd turns shaded eyes away from the world’s problems to focus almost exclusively on her personal life, reflecting on family, friendships, and how her heartstrings quiver when she’s with her lover.

Cosmic Ocean Ship is Todd’s strongest effort to date. Her newest material has a sharper consideration than previous recordings which occasionally centered on surrealism. Here, the lyrics are concise and her small combo of musical associates supply a warm, relaxed feel to the instrumental background. Todd’s early work was sometimes noticeably impersonal, with dreamlike narratives and effusive text. Over the years, she’s become more introspective and also more universal: Todd’s oblique navel-gazing has been replaced by confidence and the acceptance she’s speaking to an audience and not to herself (a trap many fledgling singer/songwriters tend to fall into). Todd has largely abandoned aesthetic escapism for a candor which can border on the unnervingly personal. It’s a legacy shared by antecedents such as fellow Southern California soft-rock/folk-popster Joni Mitchell, who continues to be a crucial influence, particularly during breezy “My Baby Lives in Paris,” when Todd uses a higher vocal register than usual and succeeds in being forthright and assured. Todd channels Mitchell by using subtly sophisticated instrumentation (piano, electric bass, brushed cymbals, several stringed instruments). Meanwhile, her lyrics have the trace of a Woodstock-era vibe, as she describes the details of her French amour, including comparisons between flowers blooming and her blossoming ardor and how doves cooing in the morning are similar to her forlorn feelings when departing back to her California home.

There is a resilient Latin American ambiance as well. The gently swaying opening track “Paraty” – referring to the lush Brazilian coastal tourist area – glides along with a sprightly bounce bounded by airy percussion, Todd’s supple guitar strums and her lightly reverbed vocals, lingering at the end of each line. Content is on the thin side – Todd relies on repeating the chorus too much on this cut – but as summer songs go, this is perfectly coifed and adroitly echoes Astrud Gilberto’s 1960s material. “Under the Sun” has a corresponding atmospheric mood, highlighted by Todd’s best singing (she hits her notes with prominent poise and precision) and lissome Latin rhythms. Unfortunately, the piece has Todd’s weakest metaphors, with embarrassingly clumsy analogies about how she is the ocean, her significant other is the land, and also the “salt in my sea, the cream in my coffee, the honey in my tea.” This is the kind of songwriting expected from a high school freshman, not the depth which listeners anticipate from a lyricist with nearly 15 years of experience. Todd’s vocals are also appealingly alluring on “Summer Lover,” which floats with a Laurel Canyon-esque impressionism, less 2011 than 1971 in its invocation of green grass, bright sun, and picnics by the lake.

Todd tries her hand at interpretation on two likable numbers. She brings a translucent psychedelia to Baden Powell’s evocative samba “Canto de Lemanjá,” a tour de force accentuated by Todd’s layered and echoed voice, bowed cello, persistent percussion, and spacy, reverbed electric guitar. It is a stimulating rendition which proves Todd can produce cover versions of other artist’s work with insight. Cosmic Ocean Ship closes with Violeta Parra’s “Gracias a la Vida,” or “Here’s to Life,” famously done by Joan Baez in 1974. Here, Todd dispenses with the traditional instrumental arrangement, stripping the song to its bare essentials of reverbed voice, guitar, and a discreet acoustic bass so she can concentrate on the lyrical inferences on the meaning of existence.

The finest cuts combine Todd’s metaphysical resolve – she earned a philosophy degree from Yale University during the late 1990s – and sincere humanism. The minimalist “La Havana” revisits Todd’s older work by emphasizing terse vocal enunciation, softly strummed guitar chords (beautifully underscored by cello), and lyrics concerning memory, loss, and perception. The comparably constructed “The Rising Tide” harmonizes a graceful folk-pop arrangement with Todd’s examination of “a changing planet, weather, land, ocean and air, [and a] population out of balance.” Her answer – “can we fix it with our love? Can we rise above?” – at first seems a naïve response, but her artistic viewpoint is a positive alternative to violence and other troubles and is ultimately more supportive than cynicism, pessimism, or nihilism.

Visit: Mia Doi Todd | City Zen
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