A couple of stray thoughts before we get started on Part Two. First, in defense of Joanna Newsom’s voice: I’ve found that her singing has become one of my favorite aspects of her music. If she had a more conventional voice, her songs could be dismissed simply as “pretty music,” the kind of thing you might play in the background while getting dressed for the Renaissance Faire. Instead, I’m forced to engage with her strangeness and recognize that there is a person (and a personality) behind the music. I know that’s a faulty argument for liking something, a whiff of contrarian logic, but there you have it. On her first album, it often sounded like she only sang because it was a means to an end, i.e., conveying the lyrics to us, but on Have One On Me (and to a certain extent, Ys), she sounds like she’s enjoying herself, actively challenging her own vocal limitations. She’s turning what might have been a liability into an asset, and for that I respect her confidence.
Thinking about Newsom’s voice and the way many people react to it reminds me of a larger question: what do we expect from our singer-songwriters? At the most basic level, we expect them to be competent at songcraft. But we also want the songwriter to have the mind of a Poet when it comes to writing lyrics, to be a virtuoso guitar-player (pianist, harpist, etc), and possess a great set of pipes. It also helps if he or she is attractive. Of course, the chance of finding a human born with every single one of these qualities is rare — not unheard of, but let’s be realistic. I keep thinking about an infuriating conversation I once had with a college roommate; she demanded to know why Bob Dylan didn’t just hire someone else to sing his songs for him.
As we enter the second act of Have One On Me, we have a set that is more musically consistent than the first, with no departures or genre dalliances like part one’s “Good Intentions Paving Company.” Part two is also considerably more sparse, both in length (all of the shorter songs are here), and in the complexity and arrangement of instruments. Only “You and Me, Bess” and “In California” carry much beyond harp and voice, but the simplicity of this set is hardly a drawback; the songs here demand more careful attention and a deeper immersion into its dreamlike landscape. I’m starting to notice patterns (horse and sugar imagery, fairy tale references) and seeing a larger theme take shape: nothing is what it seems. Not love, friendships, personal histories, childhood, and certainly not the home you remember.
Part two begins with the light and (ambiguously) sweet “On a Good Day,” a stripped-down song that lasts little more than a moment. Despite such brevity, it feels like a fully-formed song instead of an intro or gateway to the rest of the album. When Newsom sings, “On a good day/ you can see the end from here,” it’s unclear whether “the end” refers to a conclusion that’s apocalyptic or a welcome relief. In the songs that follow, the darker interpretation emerges as Newsom explores images of execution and dismemberment.
“You And Me, Bess” has a precarious melody, moving along like a sleepy brook and somehow defying nature to follow a path of most resistance. The disorientation created by this fractured melody provides a solid foundation for the lyrics, punctuating the sense of “nothing is what it seems.” A speaker describes a close relationship between two friends (seemingly) on a journey “[picking] our way/ down to the beach / watching the waves,” but we soon learn her companion is actually a stolen horse, and the speaker’s punishment for theft is death on the gallows. “You and me, Bess/ we were as thick as thieves,” she proclaims. I wonder if I should interpret the character as delusional, believing she has found a spiritual sister and partner in crime, but finding instead that a horse is only a horse, unsympathetic to her plight. She appears to feel betrayed by her own delusions when she can no longer ignore the animal nature of her companion:
Who do you think that you are —
arching your hooves like a crane,
in the shallow gutter
that lines the boulevards,
crowded with folks
who just stare as I hang?
Almost every discussion I’ve seen so far about the album has referenced Joni Mitchell’s obvious influence. This is true of much of the first disc, but here I find a stronger Kate Bush influence, especially on the more frenzied portions of “In California,” (and later, on “Go Long”) where Newsom sings in the fragile upper register of her soprano. Part one’s “No Provenance” showed a speaker wishing that she could go back to the farm, but with “In California,” she finally achieves an uneasy homecoming, discovering “I am native to it, but I’m overgrown./ I have choked my roots/ on the earth.” She also makes a distinction between physical and emotional geography when she discourages her lover, “You cannot come and see me,” but rather invites him to “cross the border of my heart,” a nakedly sentimental statement wedged between more obscure imagery. “In California” reaches one of the most satisfying musical climaxes of the album so far: strings swirling, drums pounding, Newsom’s staccato voice soaring through the chaos.
To me, “Jackrabbits” is a weak point, the quietest song on a relatively quiet set. This one might have fared better as a closing track (although that would be a somewhat predictable move), but coming as it does between two stronger pieces, it feels a little flat. She sings in a weary whisper, and sounds genuinely tired when she says, “I was tired of being drunk./ My face cracked like a joke.” The only instrument here — the harp — is used sparingly, so when her playing grows more impassioned beneath the chorus, “I can love you again:/love you again,” the impact is felt deeply.
“Go Long” is an aching song that weaves together intricate harp melodies (the liner notes inform us that three harps were used — different kinds, I wonder?) as a backdrop for Newsom’s retelling of the Bluebeard story. Bluebeard, who gruesomely murdered his first six wives, and kept their bodies in a locked room for his seventh wife to find, is treated in “Go Long” like a broken manchild more worthy of the speaker’s sympathy than of fear. “You have been wronged,/ tore up since birth,” she sings early on, making excuses for his violence, but we also understand the difference between helping a hurt sparrow and taking in a man whose secret chamber is “gilded with the gold teeth/ of the women who loved you.” By the end, she has resigned herself to the role of the doomed seventh wife, singing, “What a woman does is unlock doors./ And it is not a question of locking/ or unlocking.” She accepts destruction as the inevitable outcome of loving somebody who is damaged.
The first moment of the next song is slightly jarring after “Go Long”‘s delicately-constructed nightmare. The piano-based “Occident,” by comparison, sounds earthy and soulful. I never thought of piano as a particularly heavy-sounding instrument before, but when played against the ethereal harp, the contrast is stark. Newsom’s voice is deeper here, too, eschewing the thin vulnerability of the other pieces on the disc; this is the closest she comes to sounding like a lounge-singer in a smoke-filled room. “Mercy me, the night is long,” she sings with all the world-weariness of a blues singer. The recurring theme of blunted nostalgia returns in lines like, “All my life, I’ve felt as though/ I’m inside a beautiful memory,/ replaying/ with the sound turned down low.”
And so we’re more than halfway through this opus. Part two is less flashy and maybe more refined than its earlier counterpart, but it’s still too soon to say whether I’m satisfied. So let’s continue to press onward.
P.S. Joanna Newsom is dating Andy Samberg? Really?
It’s no secret that our attention spans are getting shorter. These days, we are grateful for albums that clock in at a half hour, and movies a tidy 80-90 minutes. So when Joanna Newsom has the audacity to release a triple album that runs over two hours, with songs at 6-12 minutes in length, there will be one of two reactions: we can either crown the achievement with a lofty “epic” label, or dismiss the record, as in a controversial PopMatters review, as inflated and self-indulgent. Because I haven’t yet listened to all three of Have One On Me‘s discs, I won’t get into the argument that Newsom could have trimmed away some of the fat. Breaking the album into three parts seems like a helpful gesture to make the glut more digestible, but I’d argue that, like Newsom’s 2006 release Ys (which only contained five very dense songs), you should take this on a song-by-song basis. Joanna Newsom is a pretty divisive figure, evoking hostility in some toward her idiosyncratic voice, and a triple album isn’t going to win any fans among those already predisposed to scorn her. Me? I like her just fine. I like what she’s doing but have never been entirely convinced by the execution. I’ve also been hesitant to get too invested because it feels a little like drinking the Kool-Aid sometimes. But this release could probably be termed an “event” album, and therefore I feel like it deserves the full explication treatment. Pour yourself a drink (ahem, have one on me), because this will take awhile.
The pensive lullaby, “Easy,” doesn’t feel like an opener, but it is one hell of a beautiful song. The tone alternates between anxiety and comfort, as Newsom sings, “We are tested and pained/ by what’s beyond our bed./ We are blessed and sustained/ by what is not said.” A simple piano melody adorned with strings slowly builds with cello and horns, before stripping itself bare again, leaving the speaker vulnerable. “Easy” seems to be about the pain of emotional distance, despite physical closeness. When she sings, “I am easy, / easy to keep,” she sounds haunted, less of a reassurance to the lover than a plea for him to stay. By the end of the song, she has become a virtual ghost, “like a Bloody Mary,/ seen in the mirror.”
The next song, the title track, doesn’t hang together quite as well. At 11 minutes, it becomes unmanageable. The first few verses struggle to find a foothold amid some predictable cascades of harp, before asserting itself; here Newsom sounds self-assured, almost aggressive in her vocal delivery of “Here’s Lola — ta-a! — to do / her famous Spider Dance for you!” After this initial bravado, though, the middle section gets lost. I’d be very interested to know what Newsom’s songwriting process is like. Does she have structures mapped out before beginning, or is her composition style more improvisational? I wonder if she just goes in half-cocked, letting the notes fall wherever they may. Sometimes I get the sense this is the case, which isn’t always bad — it can result in unpredictable and pleasantly surprising twists. And it’s not like she can’t handle 11-12 minute songs, either. “Emily” was one of my favorite songs on Ys and it never felt in danger of falling apart. However, in the case of “Have One On Me,” the piece doesn’t come together until the last four minutes, settling into a tense, percussive hypnosis. Newsom’s breathy vocals spiral out of control, espousing violent imagery of drunkenness, death, and cruelty, and then lapsing into stunned reverie in the aftermath.
After the shambling “Have One On Me,” next track “’81” has the indecency to sound like a pop song. It’s amazing that “’81” feels so huge despite the fact that it runs less than four minutes, making it one of the tightest, shortest songs out of the whole triple-disc set, and that it is composed only of a harp and Newsom’s voice. Also impressive is the way she makes the “otherworldly” seem so near and intimate through the power of simplicity; she might sing about hosting a dinner party in the Garden of Eden, but “’81” doesn’t sound like it was piped in directly from fairyland — you can practically hear the room she was playing in, the sense of space is that clear. Some see the standout track “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which draws influence from country, gospel and 70s soft-rock, as a departure, but I see it as an obvious descendent of such Milk-Eyed Mender tunes as “Inflammatory Writ,” with its saloon-nostalgic twang and piano pounding. The difference is that Newsom has smoothed away some of the rough edges and approached recording with a mature self-consciousness.
The mournful “No Provenance” find the speaker looking for safety in a past that might never have existed. “You burned me like a barn… safe and warm in your arms,” she sings, after spinning “gold clear out of straw,” like the girl from fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” Each time Newsom warmly sings the refrain, “in your arms,” sunny violins rise from behind to thaw the chilly atmosphere. But only for a too fleeting moment. This song makes a good pairing with “Easy,” with its themes of a tenuous love affair and appeals to the Fates, although not as strong or melodic as the earlier song. “No Provenance” also ties well with “’81″‘s wistful return to the Garden, as Newsom begs, “Pretty Johnny Appleseed,/ leave a trail that leads/ straight back down to the farm.” The memory of a better and simpler time on “the farm” is as much a myth as Johnny Appleseed himself.
Rounding out the first set, “Baby Birch” begins with voice and harp in a traditional hymn structure. The good news: Newsom’s voice has never sounded so silky. Not as good: the song remains inert for six minutes until the cymbals enter, creating some much-needed tension, except she immediately backs away from it and the song is over. It’s like dipping your toes in the water, finding it warm, but deciding not to dive in after all. I want to applaud her restraint here, but instead I wish she had been more committed.
On the subject of short attention spans, this review is really long, eh? And we’re only on part one. As someone who doesn’t work for a music publication (with tight deadlines and six other records to review), I have the luxury of spending time with the massive collection that is Have One On Me, as opposed to a hurried once-over. Stay tuned.
…was pretty slow. I mean, when the most exciting thing that happens is a Peter Gabriel covers record (albeit one that includes songs by Magnetic Fields, Arcade Fire, and Bon Iver), you’ve got problems. That was fine by me, because I was still processing the wealth of albums I’ve acquired this month — and the month isn’t even over yet.
This week promises to be more interesting. Today I want to pick up Joanna Newsom‘s new triple album, Have One On Me, and Swedish group Sambassadeur‘s European. Ideally, I’d love to cover Newsom’s release in three parts, but that’s a dangerous statement to make. I also hope that things around here will be more exciting as SXSW approaches.
I’m intent on gleefully destroying any cred I might have as an amateur music critic, and today’s post is going to go a long way toward that goal. I’m talking about the poor, neglected albums on my iPod that I never got around to hearing. Sometimes I get overzealous and download so much music at a time (or friends burn stuff for me) I can never absorb it all, or I get sidetracked by the one record I really love. In most cases, I listened to the first two songs, or flipped through them all and decided I wasn’t in the right headspace, but never came back to it later. It’s also possible that I’ve listened to many of these albums and that they just didn’t leave an impression on me.
So here they are, in alphabetical order:
- Aimee Mann — @#%&*! Smilers I used to love Aimee Mann, but found her quasi-concept album The Forgotten Arm to be a little toothless, despite a plot-line that revolved around a hard-living wrestler. It’s hard to say if she’s changed or if I have, but either way, I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to give this record a spin.
- Antony & the Johnsons — I am a Bird Now
- Augie March — Watch Me Disappear This Australian band’s second album Strange Bird is one of my absolute favorites, and their first and third releases were pretty good, too. But all it took was three songs from their latest, Watch Me Disappear, and the awful classic rock sound sent me running, never to return.
- Beirut — The Flying Club Cup
- Beulah — When Your Heartstrings Break Love Beulah, especially their final album, Yoko. I think I’ve listened to half of this one, but I’m not sure why it never stuck with me.
- Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago Shocking, I know. Everyone else hailed this as one of the greatest albums ever, but I don’t get it.
- Cat Power — The Greatest I like what I’ve heard from this, and Jukebox was tolerable, but I’m still a little traumatized from Chan Marshall’s exercises in dreariness on albums like Moon Pix and What Would the Community Think that I can’t stomach any more from her.
- Choir of Young Believers — This is for the Whites in Your Eyes This is also no longer true, because I listened to this album as I was writing this post. I was psyched for this after hearing the excellent single “Action/Reaction,” and although this is a very good sounding record on the production level, I wish it wasn’t so consistently downtempo.
- Destroyer — Destroyer’s Rubies I need to try this again when I’m not prone to being weirded out.
- Dirty Projectors — Rise Above
- The Felice Brothers — The Felice Brothers Dylan-y.
- The Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Love The Soft Bulletin, great album. And I really like the first song on Yoshimi… which is the only song I’ve ever heard.
- Hot Chip — Made in the Dark
- Loney, Dear — Loney, Noir I really want to like this band more than I actually do, because they’re Swedish, and because their song “Airport Surroundings” was really catchy, and I’ve known a few people to recommend Loney, Dear. But they’re like a less interesting version of Grandaddy. And Grandaddy aren’t that interesting to begin with.
- M. Ward — Transistor Radio I gave this album to my dad. Because that’s the kind of music my dad likes.
- A couple of albums by Mount Eerie that my friend gave me. This was part of a CD-swapping deluge and I just didn’t make it to these.
- Neko Case — Fox Confessor Brings the Flood I am thrilled about Middle Cyclone. Loved it. There’s really no excuse why I haven’t listened to this one yet, especially considering that most Case fans think it’s the gold standard.
- Of Montreal — Skeletal Lamping And I thought I’d be the last person to complain about too many pop hooks, but Kevin Barnes happily frolics over the line.
- Okkervil River — The Stage Names and The Stand Ins I have never been able to get into this band, and I feel so left out.
- The Pains of Being Pure At Heart Ugh.
- Radiohead — The Bends You were probably with me up until this point, and then you saw that I’ve never listened to the Most Favored Record by a Most Favored Band. Seriously. It’s not like I’ve never heard Radiohead before. I pretty much own all of their albums, but it’s a case where I started towards the end and worked my way backwards. Still working on it…
- The Raveonettes — Pretty in Black
- Regina Spektor — Like, all of them.
- Ruby Suns — Sea Lion Sorry, Joseph! My interest has been piqued for their upcoming album, so I will (re-)visit this soon.
- Rufus Wainwright — Release the Stars and Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall Rufus, I just don’t know where our relationship went so wrong. I think I liked the idea of you more than the drippy, melodramatic reality, but I have to admit that no one does that sort of thing better.
- Six Organs of Admittance — Shelter from the Ash
- Sondre Lerche — Two Way Monologue There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be interested in this guy: he’s Norwegian, overly twee, and I once listened to a sample of this many years ago in the New Orleans’ Virgin MegaStore (RIP) — and remember liking it. But it’s hard to get excited about something so palatable.
- A whole bunch of albums by Stina Nordenstam. So far I’ve only explored The World is Saved, but I like her a lot.
- Also, everything by the Sugarcubes.
- The Thermals — Now We Can See
- The Walkmen — You & Me I think I might have actually listened to this once, but just didn’t give it the attention it deserves. The Walkmen is one of those bands that intimidates me just a little because they have such unconventional song structures, and they seem wonderfully deranged — but in a way that demands love and attention.
Thar’s the list. Blast away!
So, today the A.V. Club Austin reported on the release of the first tentative SXSW schedule, and truly, I am in complete awe of this list. You could easily spend an hour skimming the list of bands slated to play this year. Skimming. The obsessive list-maker in me wants to catalogue the names of bands I’ve listened to, and then expand that to the bands I’ve vaguely heard of. Even if I listed all of the bands whose names I’ve heard mentioned, it would only account for a mere 5% of the artists on the entire list. My mind boggles that there could be so many musicians on the whole planet, much less descending on this city throughout the space of a week. Or half week. Crap.
Sorry to sound so naive. But you cityfolk have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a musical wasteland and then suddenly hit the motherlode. I’m spinning.
I have this conversation, regarding song lyrics, with my roommate Ellie pretty often. She is just as passionate, or more, about her music — mostly country and alt-country — as I am about . . . whatever the hell I listen to. We talk a lot about why we listen, and why we love what we love. After several months’ discussions, I’ve come to the (overly simplistic) understanding that Ellie likes things that are traditional, community-based, full of history and cultural context (classic rock, country, and blues), while I often like things because I can identify with their outsider status (from the mainstream, at least), or because they initially feel unfamiliar. She likes music that reflects an artist’s world; I like artists who create worlds.
Of course, that assumes that indie rock and pop exist in some sort of cultural vacuum without context — which simply isn’t true: the music is generally the work of white, somewhat affluent, and well-educated young people — but we can all admit that’s not a very interesting narrative. As someone who relates to that demographic, I’m not exactly part of a marginalized group, you know? But the music does speak to a particular sort of person who grew up feeling isolated, strange in their skin, with something to say but no one to tell without being called a weirdo.
So Ellie and I obviously have very different tastes and we justify those tastes using different arguments. But we also disagree when it comes to the role of lyrics in songwriting. She will fall in love with a song she considers musically sub-par because the writing is good, which is something that I don’t get. She cares about lyrics because she’s interested in how the songs (and their singers) have their personal narratives woven into a larger cultural context. By contrast, I don’t care about lyrics; I rarely take note of them at all. Many of the bands and singers I listen to write terrible, or lazy, or frustratingly cryptic song lyrics, sometimes on purpose. And I don’t care, because for me it’s more about the medium than the message. I mean, music is supposed to be music, not poetry.
I realize that, coming from me, that is hypocritical on two distinct levels. On the one hand, I am a writer and, obviously, the use of language is an important part of my life and my identity. I’ve spent countless hours analyzing individual words in a poem, explaining the denotation, connotation, emotional resonance and ambiguity inherent in a poet’s choice of diction. But if it’s words you crave, read a book. Music is an art form separate from the art of writing, and thus, can express complex ideas and emotions that simple language can’t — just as words express something not found in notes and rhythm. Music transcends language, goes beyond, and it’s exactly that “beyond” part that I am most interested in.
Certain songs have these sublime moments when a note, or a melodic phrase, or a particular intertwining of instruments strikes a primal nerve within you, and you feel moved by it. Again, this relates back to my desire to find music that creates its own world. My emotional attachment to certain artists, bands, or records depends largely on how compelling that world is, how tightly-constructed, and how much time I want to waste there. World-creation speaks to my larger aesthetic ideal; it’s the same reason I read books, and the reason I write, too. I prefer works of imagination over autobiography or fiction that tries to imitate life (even if it’s a creatively skewed perception of the word we live in). Music, for me, is yet another way to arrive on new ground, so I don’t necessarily want it to take the same path as poetry in order to get there.
“But Candice,” you say. “Why not just listen to instrumental bands and classical music, if you’re so uninterested in words? Why listen to singer-songwriters and bands with vocalists? Singers tend to sing words, you know.” That’s the other side of hypocrisy, and I can’t really account for it. I do prefer songs — and tightly structured pop songs, no less, with verses, choruses, bridges, etc — to wordless music. Maybe I just like the human voice as another instrument in the mix, the interplay between words and melody that only songwriting can offer, or maybe I’m drawn in because the presence of a singer invites participation in the experience, to sing along. In examining that last point, I realize that I pay more attention to lyrics sung by women. I don’t think it’s any inherent sexism on my part, but simply because I can sing along with a female vocalist more easily than with a man.
Of course, I can sit here and spin my apathy any way I want, offering rationales and justifications. But maybe I don’t care about lyrics because I just don’t. Storytelling in song has been around as long as people have had language, so I can’t explain my personal disconnect. And that’s okay. I am a weirdo, after all.
I’m just going to use up my snark quota for the whole post right here: halfway through the new Yeasayer album, Odd Blood I thought “Hey, finally, an Animal Collective record I can enjoy!” That’s not exactly fair to either band, though there’s plenty of chaos and giddy whooping on Odd Blood to lend itself to AC comparisons. (I don’t hate Animal Collective, but I was recently trapped in a car with my 17-year-old step-sister and her boyfriend while they circulated through their least accessible, most noise-heavy tracks. It made me realize that maybe I’m too old for this shit.)
All Hour Cymbals, the band’s 2007 debut had muddy production values that made the songs feel just out of reach, but Odd Blood is so crisp it practically reaches through your headphones. It’s nice to actually hear what the lead vocalist sounds like when he isn’t buried deep in the mix. See also: “Tightrope,” their contribution to Dark Was the Night. The album’s front half is the strongest; opener “The Children” promises plenty of avant-garde shenanigans but is immediately contradicted by the catchy single “Ambling Alp.” “Madder Red” and “I Remember” take a dreamier approach, slowing the record down for a bit before ramping back up again for “O.N.E.,” the collection’s second single. Starting with “Love Me Girl,” the album starts to unravel. “Love Me Girl” is all over the place, re-starting several times, but the hyper-focused “Rome” could use more of that kind of variation.
Yeasayer came out of left-field with All Hour Cymbals, and confounded indie rock audiences who loved them despite (or because of?) their decidedly world-music flair. On Odd Blood, the band sounds like they are trying to counteract the squish potential by taking a slightly more experimental approach. The album accomplishes this, without abandoning the new-age eclecticism that defined their initial success.
Listen: Yeasayer — “Ambling Alp”
Buy Odd Blood at Insound