1.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Many weekends ago, when I slummed with the children of the night in Katonah, New York (I was, in fact, their King), I would often run into Kimya Dawson, a young artiste with more piercings than Moby Dick. She seemed sweet, innocent and entirely clueless to life’s harsh realities. She seldom said more than a word at a time, and when she did it was to ask if I’d buy her a drink. So I was floored when I was told she was an aspiring singer/songwriter who was the driving force behind a group called Moldy Peaches. When I finally got hold of a CD of their music I found it to be raw, unpolished and well…rotten. I was sure Kimya Dawson had as much chance of being a successful recording artist as the Boston Red Sox had of winning the World Series.
Well, we all know how the Red Sox have faired of late…Now Kimya Dawson is getting her chance to step up to the plate as featured artist for the movie soundtrack for “Juno,” which, was the #1 digital album and #1 album on itunes for two weeks in a row.
The soundtrack should be subtitled “Songs From the Shortbus: Music Written and Performed by the Geeks You Stuffed In Their Lockers In High School.” It’s nice that the “Juno” soundtrack gives the socially addled a platform to express themselves, but this thorizine-paced Peter Pan pop puffery is not necessarily for the well-adjusted. It may fit the film’s oddball plot fixated on 16 year-olds finding love and procreation, but if you haven’t done time on a psychiartrist’s couch reliving your tortured teen years or passed the afternoon drooling from the side of your mouth, you’ll pity, rather than appreciate the quirky, child-like chansons of Kimya and her krazy kohorts.
Barry Louis Polisar’s opening cut “All I Want IsYou,” is not at all indicative of the Mister Rodgers mini-operas that follow. It’s a citified version of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” harmless and hammy the first time you listen to it, but as grating and hokey as Gomer Pyle’s moronic good ole’boy accent the more it burrows into your craw. This is music to bust up mailboxes to, an inbred square dance: “If you were a wink I’d be a nod. If you were a seed, I’d be a pod.” If you a man Barry, you’d be a clod.
Kimya Dawson stumbles through “My Rollercoaster,” the first of eight musical paradoxes. No excessive, probing lyrics here, just “do-de-doh.” It’s a childishly niave snippet that weighs in at under a minute. “Sleep” is its equally disposable sequel that uses the same elementary school melody as “All I Want Is You” minus the harp. Instead of la-de-das we get “mmmmmmm” and another thirty seconds of unadorned strumming. It will make you sleepy though. “Tire Swing” rolls in as the first full length Dawson din. Kimya, you’re still a strange child. Talented, but strange. Not Frank Zappa you’re pulling my leg and trying my patience strange -- this has all the makings of someone taking things they’d say to their shrink and setting them to music. There’s some mindless whistling going on in the background that’s so fruity and casual it sounds as if it belongs in another song. Dawson’s guitar playing had graduated to rudimentary, but at least it adds to the childish veener of the song.
“Loose Lips” involves more talking than singing, with Dawson’s increasingly cynical point of view drawing comparisons to Michelle Shocked’s rubber room ravings. “Loose Lips” might be a suitable lampoon song for an episode of “Family Guy,” except there’s a bit too much blue language even for that show. Despite the dark point of view of “So Nice, So Smart,” it’s still on the same intellecutual level as “Sesame Street”: “I like boys with strong conviction and convicts with perfect diction. I like my new bunny suit, When I wear it I feel cute.” File that last line under the too much information act.
Dawson gets a new partner in psycosis in the group Antsy Pants for “Tree Hugger.” Antsy Pants singer Emily Madden has a bit more pixie dust in her voice than Kimya and “Tree Hugger”s juvenille rhyme scheme has a “Three Little Fishes” feel to it (“Down in the meadow in the itty bitty pool swam the three little fishes and the mama fishey too.) “Anyone Else But You” comes in two versions – because sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t. Dawson’s version contains her well established pattern of Romper Room vocals, cockamamie lyrics and arrangements that are so hairbrained you expect a clown car to pull up to the curb. “Anyone Else But You” gets a second go round from Michael Cera and Ellen Page, the actors in the film portraying the tetched teens. Herein lies the problem with Kimya’s approach to her songs. These two are actors and they deliver the same song she wrote with more conviction and punch than she did. They take the quirkyness out of it (well not completely) and turn it into a caring inside joke between two people.
There are three songs on the soundtrack that elevate the quality of the material from sanctioned demos to sanctified classics. “Well Respected Man,” one of the Kinks best tunes, critiques the 9 to 5 mundane lifestyle that too many people (including yours truly) are forced to lead, and it does so with a sense of melody and timing that accents the lyrics rather than derails them: “’Cause he gets up in the morning, and he goes to work at nine. And he comes back home at five-thirty, gets the same train every time. ‘Cause his world it built on punctuality, it never fails. And he’s all so good, and he’s all so fine. And he’s all so healthy, in his body and his mind. He’s a well respected man about town, doing the best things so conservatively.”
The second song, “All The Young Dudes,” was an anthem for the glam rock sect. It’s subject matter relates to the character’s in the movie being tagged as outcasts (give a few years)… “Well Billy rapped all night about his suicide, how he kicked it in the head when he was twenty-five. Don’t wanna stay alive, when you’re twenty-five.” “All The Young Dudes” was Mott the Hoople’s biggest hit a blessing because it reconstituted a group that had just broken up – but also a curse because they were never able to top it. It was written by David Bowie – whose stage persona at that time was as alien to the human race as E.T. My musician friends and I used to love singing “Dudes” at parties in our 30s. We can’t make those high pitched Mick Ralphs/Overend Watts harmonies anymore, because they make our eyes water and our voices turn into dog whistles, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, and maybe that’s what the song is really about.
When I heard the sparse acoustic beginning to “Dearest,” I said to myself, “That’s got a touch of Buddy Holly in it.” Well, it’s got more than a touch. “Dearest” is a rarely heard Buddy Holly ballad – rarely heard because it was co-written by Elias McDaniel a/k/a Bo Diddley. When a song captivates your attention 50 years after the man singing it died, and it was written by someone else -- that’s noteworthy.
“I’m Sticking With You” is another entry from the bountyful song catalogue of the 60s, only this one should have been stuck in a trench and buried. The Velvet Underground’s drummer Maureen Tucker, he/she of an indeterminate gender and even more questionable syncopation, leads the robotic remnants of the Velvet Underground through an embarrassing flood of groan inducing pubescent promises. “I’m sticking with you, ‘cause I’m made out of glue. Anything you might do, I’m gonna do too.” See what happens when you let the drummer near the mike? It was written by Lou Reed, who no longer has the right to complain about anyone else’s inane lyrics. Hard to believe this is the same bunch of drooling junkies that wrote tunes praising heroin.
“Juno” also houses several remakes that are so horrific even the deaf should protest. Cat Power, whose lackidasical, inert delivery is her strong point, picks up an autoharp and drags her wilting carcass through “Sea of Love” as if she’s hauling Davey Jones’ locker behind her. It’s outpaces Robert Plant’s shipwrecked take, but is nowhere near as good as Phil Phillips’ definitive rendition.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I like one Carpenter’s song – “Superstar.” It was originally sung by Rita Coolidge as part of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and was written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, so it’s got some street cred after all. So what does Sonic Youth do to it? They give “Superstar” a sonic blast of boredom. The Marilyn Manson half-spoke half-droned vocal sounds as if its being broadcast from inside the gut of a running vacuum cleaner, and it’s a clogged one at that. This Goth version of the song proves that youth is indeed wasted.
Belle and Sebastian are represented by a pair of performances in muttering overdrive. The duo has some interesting ideas, but doesn’t leave themselves enough room within the song’s structures to shoehorn them in, so lead singer Stuart Murdoch winds up spitting out syllables faster than bunnies exiting a fertility clinic. The last thing Mike Piazza needs is a song that asks the probing question, “Piazza, are you straight or are you gay?,” but that’s one of the interesting and more readily discernable questions posed in “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a strummer with the early folk feel of Donovan: “The catcher hits for .318 and catches every day, the pitcher puts religion first and rests on holidays.”“Expectations” owes a heavy debt to Love’s “Forever Changes” when the Spanish horn and strings enter, otherwise it has the same tempo as Unit 4 + 5’s “Concrete and Clay.” I haven’t got the foggiest idea what Murdoch is singing about because he’s still slinging syllables faster than an auctioneer with a twitch. It’s very listenable, though.
So I’m on the fence with “Juno.” On the one hand the musician in me says this is music for geeks and goofballs, the Lisa Loebs and Ugly Betty’s of the world, the suicidal, zit infested out of touch kids who wear plastic glasses and highwaters. I was once a little Poindexter myself, but the desire to have friends and not get my head jammed in a toilet cured me of that, so maybe I have little patience for the hopeless, hapless and helpless. However, I still have a miniscule soft spot for Kimya Dawson, someone I barely knew, who struck me as being damaged – fragile at the very least – and her toddler tunes seem to bear this out. She could be majorly unhinged or a misunderstood genius (misunderstood by me at least), but this stuff sounds like Norman Bates took up with Bjork. Whatever color the sky is in her world she seems to like it. Sorry, I don’t. I may still want to date women who may look like teenagers, but I don’t want to listen to one. One quirky, cutsey tune is fine, and two songs will turn reality into a gleeful escape, but navigating through half a dozen of Dawson’s Ritalin romps is like setting a Salvador Dali painting to music. It’s entertaining until you realize it’s disturbing, then it’s no fun anymore.