Saturday, February 27, 2010

Kat's Korner: Joanna Newsom's triumph

But, like a Bloody Mary,
seen in the mirror
speak my name
and I appear.
Kat: "Speak my name and I appear."

Joanna Newsom.

Okay, didn't work that time. Who is Joanna Newsom?

joanna newsom

An ambitious artist strolling through a world of commerce and laying down a triple-album entitled Have One On Me. An ambitious artist riffing through our collective conscious and our collective unconscious, the most Jungian songwriter grabbing the detail you remember and pairing it with the insight you never reached. An ambitious artist who is a woman writing epic songs so wrongly compared to Kate Bush (the knee jerk reaction -- especially among those male critics who sole knowledge of Bush apparently consists of the "Don't Give Up" duet). An ambitious artist with traces of Tori Amos and Joni Mitchell and Syd Barrett and Melanie but, in the end, uniquely her very own voice and very own creation.

You saw me rise to our occasion
and so deny the evidence.
You caused me to burn, and twist, and grimace against you
like something caught on a barbed-wire fence.

Now you can see me fall back here, redoubled,
full bewildered and amazed.
I have gotten into some terrible trouble
beneath your blank and rinsing gaze.

It does not suffice for you to say I am a sweet girl
or to say you hate to see me sad because of you.
It does not suffice to merely lie beside each other
as those who love each other do.

The three disc album is a love cycle that ends, above, with "Does Not Suffice." The details are there and the conclusion, when it comes, is not surprising but it is moving. Details and clues such as in the second song, title track (and the most Melanie-like song on the album) where she works in this, "Though the long road begins and ends with you, I cannot seem to make amends with you".

The problem with reviewing Joanna Newsom is that you can get lost in her amazing and deep lyrics for hours and end up forgetting the music. You could very easily turn in a review that made it appear Joanna was a spoken word poet and not a working musician. "In California" has rightly been likened by some to Joni Mitchell but I heard two critics on college radio say "Blue" and it's not like either the title track or the album. You have to drop back two albums before Blue to Clouds and to the song "I Don't Know Where I Stand." Joanna appears to confess it's a musical nod to that song by penning the lyric "I did not understand." She's borrowed the tentative nature of the music to that song and added some more darker chords and a second melody that could have been a song all it's own (I'm referring to the melody during: "And if you come and see me, you will upset the order, You cannot come and see me for I set myself apart, But when you come and see me, in California, you cross the border of my heart"). The multiple melodies are a special province of Joanna's. "Soft As Chalk" has a wonderful dominant melody with hints of two other ones that become more than hints starting at 4 minutes and fifty seconds in. Possibly when you paint big canvases, you need multi-melodies to play around with?

The album's immediate musical masterpiece "Good Intentions Paving On" has a pulsating piano melody that the tracked backing vocals echo and but vary ever so slightly. (In her main vocal, Joanna sticks to the main melody.) It's a gorgeous, rocking song and you really need to hear it on headphones to enjoy Joanna's backing vocals and the way they've been layered including a grouping you hear in both ear phones and some you hear only in one or the other. But it's not just the studio wizardry, it's the intensity and the way she attacks the notes in her background vocals.

Back to Kate Bush. I love Kate. She's a true artist, an original artist. But I don't understand the comparison because the two women are nothing alike and because it's not helpful. If you're one of Kate Bush's many fans and you buy this album thinking, "It's like a new Kate release!" -- well, you're going to be hugely disappointed. Then there's the other fact that Kate Bush, in the US, was largely dismissed by the bulk of male listeners in real time and by many female ones as well (in the US more people know her amazing "Wuthering Heights" as a song on Pat Benatar's Crimes of Passion album than as a Kate song). So the mistaken comparison not only sets up Kate Bush fans to be disappointed, it also sets up a large potential pool of listeners to have an easy out for not listening.

And you should listen. But I get that the Great Recession shows no signs of abating and that a triple disc may be a bit pricey to some in good times. Prices? Drag City is Joanna's label and you can get Have One On Me on three vinyl discs for $25.99 (may not include shipping & handling), on three Compact Discs for $20.00 (may not include shipping and handling) and you can download it (MP3) for $17.99. (Link takes you to Joanna's page and all those options and more.) Amazon currently has the CDs on sale for $17.69 and the MP3s for $17.82. I've spent several weeks living on C.I.'s advance copy and the packaging is great for those who'd prefer to have the album on compact disc. For myself, I downloaded from Amazon and my only problem was the one we all have. You go to download an album and Amazon randomly decides they don't recognize your Amazon Downloader so you have to reinstall it all over again. I had to do that multiple times before it would allow me to download the album. As most of you know, Amazon provides snippets -- about 15 seconds -- of tracks. That's not enough to judge even a song of Joanna's by. I'd instead refer you to this NPR page where you can hear a review from All Things Considered and also at this page, FOR A LIMITED TIME, you can hear the entire album. Repeating, "For a limited time." Don't e-mail me in three months whining, "Kat, I just had time to go to that page and they don't have the album up there anymore." It won't be up there forever. So make a point to go listen now if you're not familiar with Joanna Newsom.

If you are familiar with her and you're still reading, I'll assume you either already own Have One On Me or you've flipped screens earlier to order it. I didn't know her.

I'd never heard of her. In earlier days, the Tower Record Days, Before Foreclosure Days, I would spend hours in there, at the listening booths, listening to small artists, discovering people I never heard of, talking to the employees for suggestions, etc. And since it closed, a number of community members have e-mailed to say that in the last years it seems like the albums I review are all the ones they'd see advertised on TV. Meaning that they may not really need a push. And that's a fair criticism. I cop to it, I don't deny it. But when I write back and ask for suggestions, I get 'I can't think of anyone right now.' This may be the last year of TCI -- it may not be, that's C.I.'s call (I think she just bought the place in the DC area in part to justify another a year -- in a 'I bought this house so I better offer congressional hearings in the snapshots' -- but that's just my opinion). And knowing that possibility, I wanted to find an artist to open my 2010 reviews with that you might not have heard of and hopefully one not on a huge label.

I asked friends for suggestions and came up with zilch. Then I asked C.I. around January 13th and she recommended Joanna's upcoming album. I spent the next two weeks listening to her back catalogue Walnut Whales, Yarn and Glue, The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys. I never had time for the live album from 2007 because by that time I was living on C.I.'s advance copy of the album.

Joanna Newsom's previous albums got me excited about the new one but they didn't prepare me for it. I've talked about her lyrics and music and melody already so I'll zoom in now on the voice. This is her Ladies Of The Canyon. That's the album when Joni Mitchell's vocals were truly her own. The first album, she's said, was more bell-like. The second album was a stripped down style as she felt around. The third album was the start of the amazing voice we'd come to love and know. And that's Have One On Me. Joanna's vocals have so much more confidence and they reach and they soar.

As the song cycle nears its end, she takes a trip to the "municipal pound" ("Ribbon Bows") and sings:

I am not like you, I ain't from this place
And I do reserve the right
to repeat all my same mistakes.
And, in night, like you,
I certainly bit and chew
what I can find
and never seem to lose the taste.

If you can relate to that passage in any way (and I'm betting most people can), Have One On Me is an album you need to purchase. It's one of the most ambitious works of 2010 and, even with the year still so young, it's hard to think anyone else is going to top it.