From Wondering "Who's Got The Crack" to Changing Diapers, Kimya Dawson Winds a Strange Path to Alphabutt
Who'd have imagined--back when she and fellow Moldy Peach Adam Green were waxing anti-folk rhapsodic about downloading porn with Davo, about Duran Duran boyfriends, about what to stick their dicks in--that Kimya Dawson could ever be closer than an NFL football field to household name status? 2001's The Moldy Peaches introduced the then 29-year-old Dawson as little more than a potty-mouthed, if poignant, Toys `R' Us kid whose mind hadn't quite developed at the same rate as the rest of her body. She was a kindly woman-child foil for barely legal hipster smart ass Green--who she baby-sat, in his younger years--but not much else.
A few years before the Moldy Peaches went on "hiatus," she began to record and release lo-fi records of her own. Then, almost overnight, the Dawson-heavy soundtrack for teen-pregnancy comedy Juno transformed this wild-haired, low-self-esteemed thirtysomething into a hot commodity, ballooning her live shows into crowded love-ins of adoring kids and kidults who previously had never forked over lettuce for music issued by K, her record label.
Alphabutt is Dawson's first post-Juno release, and its core content--unabashedly puerile and scatological children's music--will only come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with her biography and solo back catalog. As a former day-care worker, she's been especially empathetic to and concerned with the welfare of children; this carried over strongly into early albums such as 2002's I'm Sorry if Sometimes I'm Mean, '03's Knock Knock Who?, and '04's My Cute Friend Sweet Princess.
Sometimes outraged, sometimes arrested-development precocious, sometimes lonesome, and sometimes mournful, these bedroom-fidelity recordings are almost achingly intimate in subject and rudimentary in arrangement--often just Dawson rasping or whimpering along to her own acoustic-guitar ramblings. "Talking Ernest" eulogized Jim Varney over music-box tinkling and manipulated toy samples. "Everything's Alright" framed Dawson's male dependency issues in '80s pop-culture bric-a-brac, as if to blunt the painful reality. "Being Cool" references The Moldy Peaches' "NYC Is a Graveyard" and flips the bird at the titular concept. "Hold My Hand" finds her stewing darkly over the maltreatment of children in her care and detailing homicidal fantasies about the children's services worker who routinely blows off her attempts to report the parents.
If the emotional force of that era can be defined, perhaps, as the rhetorical power of relative powerlessness, 2004's Hidden Vagenda found Dawson stepping a bit further outside of herself--and her four-track production aesthetic--to whale on Bush and Co. ("Fire") and culture-crushing corporate overlords ("Viva la Persistence") when she wasn't fretting about her parents' health issues or drawing parallels between anthrax scares and the toxic World Trade Center dust that killed or crippled so many emergency workers immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks ("Anthrax").
By comparison, 2006's Remember That I Love You was a letdown and a backpedal, reiterating by then familiar Dawson themes--familial fears, the astonishing miracle of friendship, the importance of believing in one's self no matter what--while detailing personal strains caused by too much touring and turning in "12/26," a stunned, graphic, gibbering ode to victims of the '04 Indian Ocean tsunami: "One of her babies is rotting in the sun, and the other one was found drowned in the ocean/ Her mom and dad are in their van, crushed and bloated, and her husband was thrown from his fishing boat/ So give me a break from all your complaining/ About who is mean to you, and your stepdad is a pain." Everybody hurts, and Dawson hurt right along with them, her bleeding heart the size of Epcot Center. On "The Competition," she reasoned that performing deeply humanistic folk music and serving as an underground inspiration may have helped save her own life: "I got good at feeling bad, and that's why I'm still here."
After Dawson gave birth to Panda Delilah--her first child, with husband/fellow musician Angelo Spencer--in July 2006, the focus of her songwriting narrowed drastically. As any parent can tell you, the larger world's problems--including your own, to some extent--matter much less when there's an infant on the scene. Babies are helpless; despite not having the ability to do so explicitly, they demand love, attention, and care. And the acts of feeding, rocking, nursing, and diaper-changing somehow get the creative juices overflowing--almost any activity can be celebrated, on the spot, in soothingly impromptu baby-babble or song.
The difference between most parents and Dawson is that for most of us, these cutesy, situational improvs fade from memory immediately after serving their purposes, while Dawson wisely held onto hers. Alphabutt, then, is about Panda Delilah and little else, a mildly gross Hee Haw/Sesame Street half-hour of edutainment funny-eeww. Many of these bare-bones tunes--you can easily imagine them being strummed unplugged by campfires at night, right before ghost story time--share similar chords, making them both simpler and less overthought than anything Dawson's written before.
In her gently capable hands, what's mundane to adults becomes monumental to tots--even going to visit a relative, as on "Uncle Hukee's House," where spaz drums and meows help herald the journey's beginning. "Pee-pee in the Potty"--all tripled, schoolyard-cadence vocals and entry-level food-chain lesson--turns toilet training into a brattily fun event. "Bobby-O" eschews narrative gravity for humor and the toddler-centric joy of playing with "O" sounds: "Got a job in a hotel in Mexico/ Teaching water aerobics in a sombrero/ All the old ladies sure thought he was a pro/ Doing jumping jacks in his pink Speedo."
The title track runs through the alphabet in a vaguely disgusting manner that'll have the average 3-year-old laughing--almost every letter is linked to some form of excretion or flatulence: "S is for stinky, T is for turd." "I Love You Sweet Baby" consists of a rapid-fire rundown of a given day's events in the Dawson/Spencer household: "Then we're gonna change you, then we're gonna feed you/ Then we're gonna play peek-a-boo, then we're gonna read to you/ Then we'll have more milk, and we'll have some water/ And we'll smile at you and tell you we're so glad that you're our daughter." More saccharine yet, "Little Panda Bear" is doting greeting-card gushy, its kazoos and bells underlining a momma's love for her little one. "I Like Bears" is, well, about liking bears a lot, especially when they're splashing about in bodies of water.
To her credit, Dawson sneaks in a pair of message tunes aimed at older kids and fans. The Annie-referencing "Happy Home (Keep on Writing)" feels like what her every musical expression of discontent has been leading up to: that long elusive moment of total contentment and satisfaction, of home, hearth, and stability. The allegorical "Sunbeams and Some Beans," meanwhile, concerns a beet grower's for-charity-not-for-fame largess.
Alphabutt is an anomaly for Dawson: It feels more like a destination than another rest stop in an ongoing journey. She deserves a reprieve, sure. But here's hoping she doesn't lose herself in domestic bliss; she doesn't owe Juno-philes a heap of "Anyone Else But You" clones, but if she keeps her dripping heart on her troubadour's sleeve and her tearing eyes wide open, she could morph into the Arlo Guthrie we need her to be.
Christian Siriano (1/6/2010)
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