Quirky Cool: The Problem of Joanna Newsom

Music Review: Joanna Newsom @ BAM

For Michael

joanna-newsom-04edit.jpgFor one night at least, the cool kids took over BAM. I am, of course, using the phrase as I once believed Claudia La Rocco had used it (reviewing Jeremy Wade’s “…and pulled out their hair” at The Joyce Soho), that is, with an edge of condescencion. Well, with certified cool kids, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers and Andy Sandberg from SNL, and former front man of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, in audience last night at Brooklyn Academy of Music for the first of two sold-out concerts by indie-yarn-spinning-troubadour, Joanna Newsom, it was difficult to imagine even BAM’s regular patrons were the reason for such an overwhelming turnout. I can only fantasize about who will be at tonight’s performance.

But for all the cool in the air–the superficial kind; the kind that will most certainly be crest-fallen after reading this review; the kind that must be cool in order to feel truly present–the concert, backed by members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic during the first half, then reduced to her three-piece back-up band for the second, did a lot to obscure what talent Ms. Newsom truly possesses, and left a beguiling portrait of a uniquely voiced musician caught in the cross hairs of indie-celebrity worship, classical music fetish, and, so far, unspoiled artistic vision.

Let’s be clear. Ms. Newsom is not writing classical music. I don’t know that anyone has explicitly made the claim, but there are stirrings among the classical music literati that seem to endorse Ms. Newsom as the next big crossover, or that new breed of alternative musician, like Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright before him (both have performed on BAM’s opera house stage), who could be recruited by orchestral organizations to revitalize a flagging popular interest in new classical music. I have maintained that getting popular musicians to suddenly turn out a classical piece of music will probably A.) rarely work, and B.) be bad for classical concert music in the long run (it has the grave potential to re-affirm prejudices against modernism and non-conventional forms of composition).

So what is she writing? Well, not the orchestral arrangements from last night. Those were done by Van Dyke Parks. And those were mostly unmemorable and muddied from over-miking. The four outer songs from “Ys” were all set similarly with modest orchestral embellishments breaking mid-way to allow Ms. Newsom to go commando (or, unaccompanied).

The amp balance just didn’t feel right. Ms. Newsom’s voice was pumped way up, even closer than Tori, along with her harp. The generic percussion provided by one of her band-members was often only a slightly audible doubling of Ms. Newsom’s own complex rhythms, adding little. Even the worthwhile contributions of the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle from her two other band-mates were complicated by the desire to isolate Ms. Newsom’s magic. (BTW, all three band members went grossly unmentioned in the program, despite Newsom announcing their names during the show.)

And magic there is. That is for certain. I’m not taking anything away from this girl. On her own, she has a formidable talent as a harpist and as a songwriter. It is not exactly my taste, I will admit. How a twenty-five year-old girl from the middle of California writes and sings like she grew up on the back porch of a dilapidated Appalachian township, I have no idea. There is certainly something affected in the way she chooses to sing, although it is not altogether unpleasant. But where Bjork sounds weird as in “alien,” Newsom sounds weird as in “hokey.” Her speaking voice didn’t sound particularly backwater, maybe indie cutesy, but not like Nell or anything. (FYI: C.C. grew up in rural Oregon and never ran into anyone who sang the way Ms. Newsom does, not even my grandparents who litterally built a log cabin with their own hands and maintained a small farm of chickens, guinne hens and peacocks. Just sayin…)

But beyond her character, there is the matter of her music, which does prove Ms. Newsom to be a writer of inventive harmony and form; you know, in terms of popular music. The long yarns of musical narrative in the five songs from “Ys” are impressive in their breadth, but they don’t always hold the attention, largely because the music tends to repeat itself, only now with a new paragraph of lyrics and some orchestrated variation. These pieces turn like a spinning wheel; just when you think you’ve gone somewhere, you come right round to the same place. It isn’t bad, it just doesn’t transport you. In a way, her songs, like a good story, are like old snapshots of ghost towns; you can sense the multitude of stories implied by the image, but the image remains still.

The pieces from the second half, mostly older material, were shorter and easier to get into, and better for that. In evidence still was Ms. Newsom bent for folsky whimsy–you could hear the seeds for “Ys”–with lines like “blackberry, rosemary, jimmy crack corn” and “clam, crab, cockle, cowrie” anticipating the latter tales of “sassafrass” and the “fishin’ hole.” Her lyrics remind you of the stream of conscious fantasies of Tori Amos, and Kate Bush’s witty turns of phrase, but without being as zany as Amos or as direct as Bush. (In “Only Skin,” there is even an odd moment where Newsom ends a musical phrase with “cherry tree,” in almost exactly the same way Tori Amos does in “Girl”.)

Other influences you can detect in the music: blue grass, Dolly, Emmylou, Fleetwood Mac, Bjork, Dixie Chicks, Joni Mitchell, Aimee Mann, Nelly McKay, The Man In Black, Woody Guthrie, and for sure, Zeena Parkins, an even “indier” harpist and certainly a precursor in drawing attention to the harp in popular music(you can actually hear a snippet of one of Zeena Parkins’s progressions from “Auraura”, also in “Only Skin”).

I normally don’t like to break down a new artist into a list of their influences, but the artifice that Ms. Newsom adopts seems to conspicuously draw attention to her aesthetic choices, intentional as they are. And my uncensored reaction is that, although she does these things well (creative harmonies, breaking conventional forms, visionary lyrics, exciting instrumentation), she doesn’t necessarily do them any better than Bjork, Bush, Ani, Tori, or Parkins.

But what might make Newsom stand out from them, is that she manages somehow to be both more and less mainstream than her predecessors, if that’s possible. The hillbilly accent she adopts while singing is so strange and yet heartwarming; kind of like how America always votes for the president with a southern accent; it’s not normal, but it’s soothingly familiar. Her elfin voice is also very indie-vogue right now, but the really chewy drawl is a bit over-the-top, even for MTV-U. Her harmonies, though they can get quite tricky, are still chords you can find with relative ease in other music that’s out there. Her lyrics are totally cuckoo, and yet they tell down-home tales of old. (What is it about that strain of young American artists who looooooove this pre-telecommunications era of old-timey storytelling?).

Then again, the quality of her music prevails. What makes her so satisfying as a soloist, is that she uses the harp as if it were an orchestra. She provides the bass lines, the counter-melodies, sudden string flourishes; all of which rendered Van Dyke Park’s tepid orchestrations all the more in vain. Without the orchestra, she is simply mesmerizing, as she was in the unaccompanied third song of “Ys,” “Sawdust and diamonds.” Particularly effective is when she uses the harp as if it were an African kora, plucking out sublime polyrhythmic layers that require two hands to play; this can’t be done on a guitar. And her virtuosity on the instrument is evident, even as Boulez endorses virtuosity, as dangerous.

I gotta say, there’s something very Ren-Fair about Newsom’s schtick. An insider source says she used to wear a lot of flowy, hippie garments, but last night she was looking very chic; a slinky black concert dress apropos of her gig with the orchestra, and then a hot pink couture little number for the latter half. But there is some magnificence I can’t take away from her, as much as I might like to if only to sober up her doting admirers. After hearing her shorter pieces, “Ys,” in retrospect, seemed like a bold, fearless, even necessary achievement. Would that she continue doing what she does best, and not get pulled into either attempts to level out her quirkiness or step back into the classical world (from which she comes, despite the faux slack-jaw), she may prove herself to be more than a whimsical summary of her influences. I would like to hear that.



  1. wow. couldn’t disagree more with this review but also would be hard pressed to find a more amusing one. basically, you know as soon as the reviewer begins with some prattle about “the cool kids” (oh and just to hit you straight on the head with it, i’m being CONDESCENDING people – wow!) that they’re too self-conscious and have too much to prove to provide much in the way of an objective review.

  2. dear author,

    I attended that show as well and have been following the reviews of it that have been of course, gushing and full of love towards Jnew, her band and the brooklyn philharmonic.

    I joined the Newsom bandwagon when Ys came out. I wasn’t into the milk-eyed mender but had no reservations either. it didn’t do anything for me at the time. Ys on the other hand, has took hold of my ears and heart for the remainder of 06 and the whole of 07.
    So u have to imagne my excitment to finally see her play it live. I have moved from israel to NYC about a month before the show (not because of it, although it did influence my decision to live a few months in NY before moving to CA).

    as a big admirer of that album and as a musician as well, i was expecting to have some revelation from that performance. one was to finally hear those amazing arrangements and see what the hell those strings are doing with my own eyes as well as ears and the other was to be emotionally engulfed in the music in a live experience.

    when i started reading your review i was happy to find that you too noticed that there was an issue with the sound at BAM. the orchestras volume was much softer than ms newsoms harp and WAY softer than her voice which seemed to dominate any other sound. I love her voice, that is fine, but it took away from the swirling arrangements that storm their way on the album. Ys felt a bit lost to me although i was still excited and happy to see it live (my hands were literally trembling).

    I do have to say as someone who is an avid bjork and kate bush admirer (okay, crazy fan) that although i hear the similarities in the music, i think Joanna Newsom is making music that isn’t comparable with anything else. believe me, i tried. it’s not just a mixed batch of ingredients, it’s its own dish. She may be using polyrhythms on the harp like Kora players do yet her music sounds like american folk, not african music. that’s because polyrhythms dont sound african, they sound disorienting and that can be done in any style. And yes, her chords are easy to trace, but her music still sounds complex yet so easy to get swept away by its melodies. it’s not what you use, it’s how.
    I cannot think of any other pop artist today that is shares her level of musicianship and vision (even though she did mess up on some notes here and there, surprsingly on the easy parts of the songs).

    i am sorry that this is long, but it is actually because you chose to write some substance rather than just plain praise.

  3. […] Thoughts On Newsom So, my review of the Joanna Newsom concert at BAM has generated a lot of traffic, and two interesting comments by a couple of readers. So let me […]

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