Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me

 Joanna Newsom
Have One On Me
39 out of 46 Golden Harp Strings
(Alternatively: 8.5 out of 10 Cats Dying Slow Deaths)

I tried to like Joanna Newsom before. I really did. At the behest of the bearded and bespectacled gentleman behind the counter at Barnes & Noble who asked me if I was buying a copy of Paste because Sufjan Stevens was on the cover (which I was, for the record), I gave her a listen. His disclaimer that her voice was “something of an acquired taste” seemed a bit of an understatement as I listened to her screech along with her harp live on “Peach, Plum, Pear”—though, to be fair, his other disclaimer was “you’ll probably hate her.” It’s not that her voice was unbearable, though. I recognized that if I gave her a good, long listen, I might become immune to it and be able to appreciate her lyrical and musical talent regardless—but I didn’t. Maybe it was because I had a lot of more tolerable music waiting to be listened to, or maybe it was because of how loudly my roommate complained whenever I put Joanna Newsom on. Whatever the reason, I naturally had no expectations of her newest release,
Have One On Me, when I stumbled across it on NPR First Listen. Well, maybe one expectation—that whatever it sounded like, I could expect some amusing outburst of irritation from the opposite side of my room. (cont'd after the jump)However, from the first placid strains of the opening track, “Easy,” it was clear that something had changed. Newsom’s patented squeak, often referred to as shrill or childish, sounded more refined and elegant than it had previously on The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys. Since this had been my only hang-up on Newsom before, I continued to listen to the entire album—twice. This was no small feat, as the triple-disc Have One On Me clocks in at 2 hours and 4 minutes, with only 4 of 18 songs falling short of the 6-minute mark. Furthermore, saying Newsom’s voice sounds less abrasive is in no way implying that this album is more accessible than her others. This album is sprawling and, some might say, self-indulgent; without checking what track you’re on, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish where one song ends and another begins. This may be because by the time you reach something resembling an end, you’ve forgotten where the song started in the first place. The songs contain no hooks, nor do they conform to traditional structures. There are no singles or stadium choruses here, and if there was anything so catchy musically, I can’t imagine a crowd full of people singing along to something like, “I roam around the tidy grounds / of my dappled sanatorium.” Though Newsom seems to resent being pegged as some kind of esoteric harp-plucking, woodland pixie, her arrangements rarely stray from the organic sounds of harps, flutes and strings and her lyrics are as poetic and naturally-based as ever. If this paragraph seems overly exhaustive to you, do yourself a favor: check the alternative rating above and back away slowly.

But one man’s dying cat is another man’s golden harp. If you have the patience for it,
Have One On Me is worth the journey. Musically, it creates and maintains a fairly consistent atmosphere, only barely and intermittently approaching any sort of musical climax over the course of 2 hours. In this way, it’s easy to write it off as pleasant background music. However, upon closer listens, the expansive album is carefully tied together musically, lyrically and thematically. The three discs span the course of a relationship through three phases: from its simple and careless beginnings (“Easy, my man and me. / We could rest and remain here easily”), through troubles, doubt and loss (“Lord, is it hard to carry on / when I know when you are done”), to its end (“Everywhere I tried to love you / is yours again and only yours”). It could be argued that Have One On Me could have excluded some material without sacrificing the overall effect, but it’s hard to imagine Joanna Newsom grasping at fillers to hit the two-hour mark. Songs dispersed throughout the three discs, like “No Provence,” “On A Good Day,” “Jack Rabbit” and “Autumn,” though charming, are fairly unmemorable in and of themselves, but do act as threads to connect the standout tracks on the album and further the narrative, which becomes more apparent with every listen. Individually, few songs on the album are as compact as they could be. Quite a few pass through multiple tempo and instrumental shifts, notably the 11-minute title track, and nearly all have very literary, but unedited, pen-to-paper narratives.

But there are many bright spots that carry the album. Newsom's songwriting lives up to its name, with beautiful imagery and turns of phrase, and musically, there’s plenty of variety, from the orchestral swells, percussion and handclaps at the height of “Have One On Me” or “Baby Birch” to the lone plucks of Newsom’s harp at the tail end of “Esme.” While there are many songs for fans of Joanna’s older harp-, allusion- and imagery-heavy work (“Kingfisher,” “Go Long,” “’81”), I found her forays into new styles most striking, especially when she steps out from behind her harp and up to the piano.  On the poppy “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which has drawn many Joni Mitchell comparisons, the piano line sets the song chugging along to complementary banjos, horns and percussion. Between buzzing harmonies, Newsom spins a warm and clever tale of hesitancy and roadblocks in the relationship (“I regret how I said to you, / ‘Honey, just open your heart’ / when I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar / and that right there is where we are”). Other songs in this new vein include “Occident,” which is, as the title suggests, a fitting end to disc two, and the powerful opener of disc three, “Soft as Chalk.” What starts as a serene and nostalgic look-back at the easier beginnings of the relationship builds to a defiant, Regina Spektor-tinged look forward, complete with forceful cries about “godawful lawlessness" over tambourines and rumbling drums. The album’s closer, “Does Not Suffice,” is a painful piano ballad, miles away from the opening, which sees Newsom packing up and moving on (“I’ll put away and hide from view / … / everything that could remind you / of how easy I was not”) before the song devolves into a wall of thunderous noise.

For something so gentle and pleasant sounding, Joanna Newsom’s music is surprisingly divisive, turning father against son and son against father—and roommate against roommate. But chances are, if you’re still reading at this point, you’ll have the patience to sit through
Have One On Me enough times to really appreciate all the layers in their mammoth entirety.

-- Catherine DeGennaro
Hipsters Don't Lie, Saturday 9-11am on WGTB


Fiona said...

I reelly like this!

but: http://hipsterpuppies.tumblr.com/post/405143564/chuleta-says-no-one-is-going-to-play-joanna

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igs said...

i love the alt rating system.