Kimya Dawson’s music is what Riot Grrrl would sound like if it were folk rather than, well, Riot Grrrl. On her newest release, Hidden Vagenda, Dawson combines her signature low-fi sound with high quality production and confessional lyrics to create a fresh, unexpected sound. Her particular aural aesthetic – that is, her low-fi/high quality sound – gives you a sense of being whispered to, albeit by someone somewhat potty-mouthed.
Dawson’s musical style is based in a folk tradition, with the instrumentation built around acoustic guitar, and generally augmented only by a little bass and snare, resulting in a clear sound that complements her deceptively child-like voice. On Hidden Vagenda, Dawson deals with everything from death to globalization to racism, pop culture, and issues of identity. In most musicians’ hands that would result in a depressing, didactic album, but Dawson avoids that fate by keeping her lyrics specific and infused with an ultimately optimistic worldview. It’s her sense of humour, though, that lets her get away with things like dispensing advice on how to raise children (“Having been fucked is no excuse for being fucked up”) and making outright comments on white hegemony (“‘but prima ballerinas now we know aren’t always white / a million people saying something’s so don’t make it right’”). The production is very deliberate on this album, and while I would have liked to see Dawson’s vocals take center stage in sections with harmony, I think I can safely assume that the balance here was a conscious choice.
Ultimately this is a record about survival, which is what makes it universal. It’s clear that music is something Dawson does to survive, and it’s that mix of desperation and hope that drives Hidden Vagenda. As Dawson sings on “Singing Machine”: “it’s not just on the radio, it’s not just on the video / it isn’t all downloadable, there’s music everywhere.” If only it could all sound like hers.