by carl wilson

With the Palm of Her Eye

newsom2.jpg

Catching up, slowly, slowly, on the stacks of recent albums piled around my desk, this week I've been soaking in Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City). I know the U.N. declared March the official Go Nuts for Joanna Newsom Month, but I'm glad I waited till October, when leaves are turning gold and falling down in arpeggios like Newsom's pittering, pattering harp notes, when mice are pulling pumpkin carriages, and wise withered child-crones are rasping out secrets older than sex. [...]

The sound of the album is enchanting, making a case for the harp as the universe's greatest silk-string guitar. Aside from a Beatles song or two and the occasional special-side-effect on various orchestral-pop songs by the likes of ELO, I can't think of anyone who's brought such a focus on the national instrument of Heaven to the form before (despite a good argument here that the harp's natural leanings are more Top 40 than symphonic hall), but of course it's a central part of Irish folk music, and Newsom has her affinities to that babbling stream of balladry as well as her allegiances to the atavistic-folk tradition that runs through the Incredible String Band (who have used harps, and with whom she heads out on tour tomorrow), Karen Dalton, Tim Buckley and Nick Drake and more recently Devendra Banhart or Will Oldham (who incidentally has a new video directed by Gummo auteur Harmony Korine.)

The best of Newsom's songs seem to harvest folk music's millennia of unpruned dreams and stew them into something that could only have been made now. I'm going through a post-Chronicles Dylan phase, and she's great company in that, performing the same sorts of theft-and-transformations of folk's back pages, though not necessarily the same ones Bob leafed through. In one interview, she says: "The harp has this bad reputation. It's been used for easy schmaltzy crap. Much of the stuff that I do has been influenced by studying African harp, from Senegal to Mali. It's much more compressive and not always pretty. It's rattling, strange, small and complicated."

Rattling is a good word for it. What strikes most people first is her voice. What she sounds like most is a singing Sarah Vowell, but for non NPR-geeks, I might say she sounds like the child heroine of a fantasy series like Philip Pullmann's His Dark Materials, gawky and solitary and unblinkingly honest. But she also sounds like the wisest elder of an Innu clan in Greenland, speaking in riddles and legends, who just may have dark powers. (She sings about gnawing on bones a bit too zealously.) And all exotic cliches aside she also sounds like some sparkling-eyed Californian PhD student you meet at a bar a bit drunk and she's a bit drunk and you ramble back and forth before she puts down her red wool and knitting needles to fix you in the eye and say, "Okay, cut the crap. I've got some movies at home, wanna get out of here?"

Everyone talks about her songs as if they were children's books, including me a couple of paragraphs ago, but they're much tougher and sexier than that: "I slept all day/ and awoke with distaste," she's apt to scowl. But she's fond of words full of sound-juice the way a good Dennis Lee or Dr. Seuss book is - rains of rhymes like "irritable/ dirigible/ wimble/ thimble," "floozies/choosy" or syllabics like "the rough, straggly sage and the smoke" that if folk traditions are any guide adults were once brave enough to savour full in the mouth.

Before I got the album I heard Owen Pallett doing Peach Plum Pear in his Final Fantasy looped-violin project, and it remains a favourite: "I have read the right books/ To interpret your looks/ You were knocking me down with the palm of your eye." It's the way she sweeps up almost out of her own grip vocally on the second line of each verse, someone taking a breathlessly vainglorious gamble on love or something like it.

Another favourite is the second track, The Sprout and the Bean, and there's a harpalicious video for that one here.

Read More | On Record | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 10 at 6:03 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

COMMENTS

I LOVE Joanna Newsom!

Posted by Lee on November 19, 2004 7:45 PM

 

 

hey, no badmouthing Sarah V. around here, Smocky. she's great, on and off the radio.

Posted by zoilus on October 13, 2004 1:22 AM

 

 

Holy hell, saying Newsom sounds like if Sarah Vowell were singing is about the nastiest thing you could say about anyone ever, short of saying she looked like her, too. I'd stick to your other analogues first. Someone told me I'd like this and I almost hit them when I first heard her voice, but fuck, it's actually really good!

Posted by smocky on October 12, 2004 5:16 PM

 

 

That's a widespread reaction to the helium-ized kind of woman's voice that Newsom has. A matter of taste. I do think Inflammatory Writ is the worst tune on the album though - I just don't like the piano line or the faux-country-twang on it, even tho the lyrics are fine.

Posted by zoilus on October 12, 2004 11:01 AM

 

 

Newsom is the most annoyingly affected vocalist I've heard in an awfully long time. In fact, I feel that a tune like Inflamatory Writ verges on the unlistenable. I gave her a shot during her official GO NUTS month when the NYTimes raved about her - she made my ears gag if such a thing is possible. While I admire Banhart a great deal I just don't get this Newsom thing.

Posted by original spin on October 12, 2004 6:52 AM

 

 

I never thought a harp could sound like a banjo, but it does on that first track.

Posted by Sean on October 11, 2004 2:12 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson