Graded on a Curve:
Mia Doi Todd,
Music Life

That Los Angeleno singer-songwriter Mia Doi Todd is releasing her twelfth album is cause for excitement, as it’s her first set in roughly five years, and her first album of original material since 2011. As the contents easily meet expectations, the enthusiasm morphs into celebration. Todd’s songs are sturdy with lyrics consistently enriching the whole, her voice is as assured and pretty as ever, and the instrumentation is splendid throughout, featuring guest spots by Jeff Parker, Money Mark, Fabiano do Nascimento, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Sam Gendel, and Laraaji. Music Life is out February 26 on vinyl, CD, and digital through Todd’s label City Zen.

Mia Doi Todd’s last two full-lengths were devoted to interpretations of outside material, with 2014’s Floresta a stylistic tribute to her favorite Brazilian songs, including pieces by Antônio Carlos Jobim, Tom Zé, and Milton Nascimento, while 2016’s Songbook brought together inspirations ranging from Neil Young, The Cure, Prince, Townes Van Zandt, Sandy Denny, and Joni Mitchell.

Floresta is the stronger of the two, mainly because it lacks the handful of missteps found on Songbook. In a positive twist, Music Life’s return to original songwriting, her first since Cosmic Ocean Ship roughly a decade ago, combines the sustained heights of Floresta with the breadth of Songbook as Todd’s personality and her themes shine through with clarity.

Her most personal statements bookend the record, with the opening title track offering descriptions and observations on the existences of those who choose, or as she puts it, give their lives to the vocation of music. As her lyrics delve into the hard, frequently excessive living, the high and the lows, the successes and disappointments, that are the byproduct of lives dedicated to creative pursuits, Todd’s song is more an act of witness than an attempt at autobiography.

With contributions from Jeff Parker on guitar and Money Mark on keyboards, the intensity rises as “Music Life” progresses, though the track never vacates the sweet spot established early by Todd’s mingling of singer-songwriter folkiness, a splash of sunshiny ’60s-poppish backing vocals, and a deeper yet subtle current of ’70s jazz, spiritual yet erudite, roughly halfway between Steely Dan and one of Bob Thiele’s smoother productions for his Flying Dutchman label, perhaps.

“Take Me to the Mountain” extends the jazzy vibe through the presence of saxophone, but it’s the prominence of flute that guides the methodically paced track toward an almost tropical zone, like that titular mountain is located on the outskirts of a rainforest. But with sounds of surf at the beginning, “My Fisherman” shifts the folky aura into the mode of a sea song, elevated by Todd’s voice, sweet but substantial, and the deft addition of chamber strings.

Upon a cursory listen, “Little Bird” more than slightly resembles Joni Mitchell going samba, though the guitar also sports a likeness to “Baby” by Os Mutantes, notably the version from Jardim Elétrico with Rita Lee singing lead, as Todd’s voicings compare well. But her composition is more expansive, breaking eight minutes as the lyrics detail the need for the symbolic bird to visit London, or Paris, or in fact anywhere but Los Angeles. The list of prospective locales she sings as the song’s end nears is possibly the album’s highpoint; I’ve yet to experience it without smiling.

“Mohinder and the Maharani” brings Music Life its most abrupt stylistic switch as it dives wholeheartedly into Indian territory to pleasant if not spectacular result. “If I Don’t Have You” is another sharp departure in style, though the move into relaxed reggae (with instrumental hints of Augustus Pablo, even) goes down suitably easy.

With help from Laraaji and his zither, “Wainiha Valley” shimmers and glistens as the flute reinforces a sense of cohesiveness on a record that could’ve faltered into a cavalcade of disparate styles. It sets up an emotional tour de force for the finale, with “Daughter of Hope” turning up the autobiographical dial as Todd sings rejoicefully of her child and motherhood.

The track’s string lushness soars up so boldly that it would’ve likely registered as overwrought without the counterbalancing focus, and just as importantly, the sincerity, of Todd’s singing.  Music Life is a fully invested, joyful album, but it is also benefits from composure that’s derived from experience. Mia Doi Todd has navigated the music life with aplomb.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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