Monday, November 13, 2006

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom, everyone's favorite fairy princess, has a new album called Ys (pronounced "ees").

I waver in my reaction to Ms. Newsom, but I vacillate between grudging admiration of her sheer audacity, and hoots of laughter over her ridiculously overwrought persona and songwriting. Fly away, my dearest darling, with your alliteration and your elusive, effusive allusions, on moonbeams and butterfly wings. Call me when you've found a voice and you've put away the damned thesaurus.

To be sure, we have entered the most indie sanctum when someone can alternately coo and shriek words like

you froze in your sand shoal
prayed for your poor soul
sky was a bread roll, soaking in a milk-bowl
and when the bread broke, fell in bricks of wet smoke
my sleeping heart woke, and my waking heart spoke

then there was a silence you took to mean something:
mean, run, sing
for alive you will evermore be
and the plague of the greasy black engines a-skulkin'
has gone east
while you're left to explain them to me
released from their hairless and blind cavalry

and then carry on in a similar manner for another sixteen minutes, all in the same song. This is an achievement of sorts, although I'm content to note it and move on to something else, very quickly. A doubter I will evermore be. Meanwhile, the harpist was a-pluckin', and the scene kids were a-swoonin', and the critics were a-pukin', all in the month of May.

15 comments:

chelsea said...

hate to say it... but i... um... sort of relate to these lyrics. :) i like them.
but then again... i like fairy princesses too.
anyway... they tickle me. and please me. and they feel familiar.

16 minutes?

chelsea

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Chelsea.

Yep, 16:53, to be exact.

Joanna Newsom is a particularly divisive figure. I know people who love her, and I know people who can't stand her. I'm in the latter category.

Here's a review of her album from amazon.com: "Joanna Newsom's voice--a piercing flutter that's pitched somewhere between Björk and a hand brake--is an acquired taste. But to the uninitiated, it's not nearly as impenetrable as her cosmic poetry or, for that matter, baroque music. The 24-year-old Californian harpist's second album is a five-track concept piece loosely based on its namesake, the mythological drowned city of the Bretons. We say "loosely" because she leaves plenty of room for digressions on meteoroids and birds flying into windows. While Ys was recorded by minimalist Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey), it includes lush string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks (Brian Wilson) and the final mix was done by sonic experimentalist Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth, Tortoise). The result is an album that sounds unlike anything else. And despite containing spectacularly beguiling songs that stretch out past 15 minutes, every second seems to drip with magic. You certainly don't get that with Ashlee Simpson. --Aidin Vaziri"

I find the "piercing flutter that's pitched somewhere between Björk and a hand brake" comment to be particularly apt. I've heard fingernails on chalkboards that sound more melodious. And I think she tries way, way too hard with her lyrics. Granted, that's better than not trying at all, as is the case with 90% of pop lyrics, but there's something altogether precious and twee about her persona that grates on me, and when you couple that with her overrealiance on the thesaurus, you end up with a tone-deaf, smarmy know-it-all. This is not the way to my heart and soul.

But I'm glad that others (like yourself) find value in it, as incomprehensible as that is to me. :-)

jackscrow said...

My own little world here. I don't believe I have even heard of Ms. Newsom. But I don't believe she's been sharing bills with anyone I listen to.

16 minutes!

Longer than Brockett's "Ballad of the USS Titanic". I think that was 14 something.

I guarantee he got more words in. Coke'll do that to you; or I've heard.

But I prefer Leadbelly and Jack Johnson to gossamer wings and baroque anything (note professional-like rhyme0.

John McCollum said...

Ditto, Rush.

I tried -- for a very short time -- to like Joanna Newsom. This empress is butt nekked.

brian estabrook said...

I just bought Ys today.

I am really enjoying it.

The string arrangements are particularly attractive, and her lyrics are extremely obtuse.. but it's a whole hell of a lot of fun to listen to..

Personally, I enjoyed her album 'Milk-Eyed Meanderer' much better, but this one has the potential to grow on me. In some respects, I wish she would have stayed closer to her 'acoustic' roots with this album, but I think that the only reason her roots were 'acoustic' is because she didn't have the money or label-backing to afford what she really wanted.

Oh, well.

Not to be critical of such fine-tuned musical ears, but how can you guys claim to enjoy voices like Jay Farrar, Bob Dylan, Julie Miller, Bill Malonnee or even Tom Waits (all of whom are desperately in need of voice lessons and quite annoying at times).. and claim that somehow Joanna Newsom is too annoying or unrefined... Everytime I hear Farrar, Waits or a dozen other classic americana guys sing, I wince at how annoying their voices are.

My point is just that it's a matter of preference, not objective talent. Annoyance is relative, not something we can quantify into degrees of talent.. I can't stand Jay Farrar's voice, and I think Jeff Buckley has the most overrated vocals EVER.. but I respect both of them and think they have done great things for music.. just like Joanna.

It's all preference.. So, just admit the talent and genius and say it's not your preference.

By the way, I'm saying this all in the best of humor.. Having seen Joanna Newsom live, I feel qualified to comment on her abilities beyond the production of a good LP.. and she is wickedly smart and talented.. not just some knock off know it all.

Joshua said...

i'll weigh in on the vocal polemic and add victoria williams. her lyrics are more down to earth, though.

here's where there's no accounting for taste. i happen to like idiosyncratic voices that try to hard. go figure.

Andy Whitman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Andy Whitman said...

Brian and Josh -- yes, it's a matter of preference. I like "idiosyncratic." I don't like "unlistenable." The dividing line there is, of course, also a matter of personal preference. But Joanna Newsom crosses the line, on the wrong side, for me.

Here's the deal. If or when you do make it past the voice, no mean feat in and of itself, you'll find yourself face to face with lyrics like:

dig a little hole, not three inches round
spit your pit in the hole in the ground
weep upon the spot for the starving of me!
till up grow a fine young cherry tree

God bless Joanna. She's an earnest English major trying really hard to write poetry. Unfortunately, her sophomoric sentiments and stilted diction tends to lead to the stifled laughing of me, until up grow an urge to use another stilted cliche that John used yesterday: this is an emperess who is butt nekked.

John McCollum said...

Brian,

If I thought she was a genius, I'd say so. I think she's a talented harpist. I also think she's an awful singer. Actually, she is -- in my opinion -- worse than awful.

I happen to believe that Julie Miller, for instance, is trying to sing like Julie Miller, and Bill Mallonee is trying to sound like Bill Mallonee.

Joanna Newsom, on the other hand, seems to be playing some Tiny-Tim-sodomizing-Elmo-voiced character. Weird for the sake of being weird.

I don't begrudge you or anyone else their enjoyment of Joanna Newsome. Don't begrudge me my dislike of her, or at least her music.

brian estabrook said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fred Kohn said...

I've got some general comments even though I've never heard of this woman or heard her music.

There's been a major paradigm shift in how the voice is used in music, and yet we don't think about that fact very much. If you wanted to be a singer in the century or so before the days of microphones and sound systems, it was crucial to have a voice that was "big" enough to be heard even in the back row of a very big room. And this entailed not only a lot of muscular training but the removal of idiosyncratic vocal things that would get in the way of the main goal of being heard- things that today we might call smokiness, bluesiness, or silkiness. So whereas for many many years there was a readily agreed to standard for what a voice "should" sound like, today no such standard exists.

My background is classical music, so I naturally tend not to focus on the lyrics as much as I suspect a lot of people do. If a lyric happens to grab my attention in a pleasant way, great, if not, I can still enjoy the music if some other element is grabbing my attention.

When I read the lyrics here, my first thought is that they were chosen as much for how they fit the underlying (or is it overlying) instrumental structure as much if not more than the verbal ideas they are communicating. Thus the quirkiness of these lyrics isn't something that would keep me at all from listening to the music. I wonder how someone who didn't speak English at all would respond to this music.

Long pieces of music aren't at all a turnoff in classical music as long as the interest is maintained. Usually this is done harmonically, by cycling through a bunch of interesting key changes, while keeping the same melodic material.

What makes a voice "annoying"? I suspect that largely it is the same thing that made electric guitars annoying to many people when they first came out: they don't sound like they are "supposed" to. Frankly, I love the sound of an acoustic guitar, and I tend to judge electric guitar sounds by how close they are to "the real thing."

Anonymous said...

whitman:

you're a musical ignoramus if you think newsom is tonedeaf--she never misses a pitch.

you may not approve of the timbre of her voice, but that's an entirely different matter.

Andy Whitman said...

Anon, come out, come out, wherever you are.

It's a nice strawman argument you make there. I never said JN was tone deaf. And you're probably right that she never misses a pitch. However, she appears to foul quite a few of them off. Here's what I said: she screeches and coos. As far as I know, she screeches and coos in perfect pitch.

Anonymous said...

nope, here's what you said:

"I find the "piercing flutter that's pitched somewhere between Björk and a hand brake" comment to be particularly apt. I've heard fingernails on chalkboards that sound more melodious. And I think she tries way, way too hard with her lyrics. Granted, that's better than not trying at all, as is the case with 90% of pop lyrics, but there's something altogether precious and twee about her persona that grates on me, and when you couple that with her overrealiance on the thesaurus, you end up with a tone-deaf, smarmy know-it-all. This is not the way to my heart and soul."

that's a quote from higher on this page.

"tone-deaf, smarmy know-it-all." not a strawman. so you saying i was misquoting you... nice strawman.

you betray yourself when you use words like "pitch", "melodious", and "tone-deaf" and prove that you don't understand what they actually mean. your last post is more accurate, but just shows your lack of taste.

Andy Whitman said...

Your ability to hind behind an anonymous posting shows your lack of guts. Taste. Guts. Whatever.

Tell you what. You keep your job, and I'll keep mine.