As evidenced by her catalog, singer/songwriter Mia Doi Todd isn't one to deny her obsessions. From her early indie folk and chanson-tinged recordings in the late 20th century to her embrace of electronica and global traditions in this one, she's freely indulged influences, from Joni Mitchell and Édith Piaf to Maria Bethânia, Vashti Bunyan, and Flying Lotus. Songbook, Vol. 1 is her second consecutive covers album. It stands in stark contrast to 2014's gorgeous Floresta, a set of Brazilian tunes cut on location. This offering finds her on more familiar linguistic terrain and pays homage to early and contemporary inspirations. The album was recorded and mixed by Todd and husband/multi-instrumentalist Jesse Peterson, with engineering and keyboard assistance from Money Mark. Other cast members include drummer/percussionists John Herndon (Tortoise) and Alberto López (Jungle Fire, Quetzal), longtime bassist Gabe Noel, guitarist Aaron Zee, Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel, Postal Service) on electronics, and Inga's Sam Gendel on saxophone.
The set opener is a fine cover of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." Synth strings add a nice textural touch as the meld of strummed acoustic and wah-wah electric guitars seamlessly blends neo-psych and Caribbean sounds. There's a lilting read of the Cure's "Close to Me" with a muted alto saxophone solo hovering above fingerpicked electric guitars, xylophone, and Money Mark's shimmering keys. The dubby, rocksteady take on Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" is excellent. Todd allows her tender, emotionally resonant vocal to be carried by the music. Her version of Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" reveals its roots in early-'60s rock and doo wop balladry. The slippery lounge jazz read of Ned Doheny's "A Love of Your Own" adds sultry, slinky electric piano and saxophone work to frame Todd's vocal, making it a set highlight. There are tracks that don't work, too. A trippy dubwise cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry" lacks focus and emotional punch. While there are many fine readings of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," this isn't one of them. The Ry Cooder-esque blend of slide guitars and tropical rhythm comes off haphazardly, and Todd's singing sounds far removed from the haunting narrative. She couldn't leave Mitchell out of the mix, and this sweet, spacy, island reggae version of "The Circle Game" adds textural and dynamic dimension to the original, while showcasing her gifts as an interpretive singer. Unlike Floresta, Songbook, Vol. 1 offers mixed results. That said, its laid-back atmosphere and production suggest it wasn't supposed to be a creative breakthrough, but a celebration of great songs, and as such it succeeds. ~ Thom Jurek