For the record, I don't even like this kind of music. I prefer the drone instead of the song, experimental tones instead of acoustic instruments, free jazz instead of trad, and almost never the intrusive caterwaul of the human voice. After so much disposable rock posturing, so many lame lyrics, so many "frontmen" just standing in the way of the band behind them, I have just about had it with singers.
Then along came Joanna Newsom and 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender, a blast of post-folk that cracked my hatred of singing in half and introduced a voice so odd and endearing that only its sound could complete these weird, sweet songs. After hearing a few tracks in rotation on the Internet radio station Dublab, I mail-ordered my vinyl copy from Drag City and waited impatiently for it to arrive (it took months). When I was finally enabled to drop the needle on the grooves as in olden times, the clear vibrations of Newsom's harp rode the analog wave off the turntable and into the atmosphere of the room, startling my infant daughter (she jumped!) with its beauty. This was one awesome record, worth the wait, some bits so lovely they brought a tear to my jaded eye.
Two years later we have the follow-up, Ys (pronounced EES)--a difficult yet rewarding, epic-length album built of five long, complicated songs--which the critic Erik Davis, in a massive piece for the Bay Area rag Arthur, calls "an incandescent journey through desire and lament that is at once nakedly personal and deeply cryptic, like the cavernous meanderings of an alchemical dream. It’s not just a great piece of work, but a Great Work: an intentional and prodigious and, dare I say, spiritual labor from start to finish, from the inspiration through the cover art, from the orchestrations through the final, analog mixdown." Jim O'Rourke, who produced the final mix from Steve Albini's recordings, concurs: "It’s someone’s vision seen all the way through--sweat lost, brain racked, soul searched and fingers calloused. I doubt we’ll hear anything as brilliant in a long, long time.”
While the roadshow version won't have the studio might of Albini and O'Rourke (or the full orchestra conducted by string arranger Van Dyke Parks), it promises to be a unique evening. Again, Mr. Davis, on seeing Newsom live:
"None of us standing there in that rapt crowd had ever heard music like this before. Newsom’s wild-child ballads seemed loosed from some location heretofore unseen in the realms of popular song, a secret garden lodged between folk and art music, or an unnamed island lying somehow equidistant from Ireland, Senegal and California’s redwood coast. Music of such radiant singularity emerges a handful of times a generation, if we are lucky, and it seems churlish to pin the butterfly down."
If you're a hater of music-as-fashion-accessory like me (and perhaps as sick as I am of hearing tired old Bob Dylan called a "visionary"), I'm going to recommend this show for you. I mean, how often does someone lug a harp into the Launchpad? Exactly. I’ll see ya there.
Joanna Newsom plays a non-smoking, Alibi -sponsored show at the Launchpad Friday, Dec. 15, with Mark Fosson. $12 available at the door, or in advance at Natural Sound and virtuous.com (plus service fees). The full Erik Davis article is at arthurmag.com.