Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hail to the Harp

I haven’t been able to read for a few days.

Needless to say, this is like insomnia. Nothing feels the way it should and my room which used to feel so womb-like and warm is estranging.

So let’s talk music.

Ben Ratliff wrote in the New York Times: “Why is it that compression is considered the best way to make a mark in the world? People like to talk about Joanna Newsom because she gives them a lot to talk about.”

True: She’s a vocalist, a harpist, a word-smith, a story-teller. Her variable voice is characterized by vocal squeaks and piercing upper notes, has been characterized as “child-like” by reviewers and as “un-trainable” by Newsom herself.

I am most familiar with Ys, an album with five songs which range from seven to sixteen minutes in length. The title refers to the Breton legend of a damned drowned city, the inverse of Paris (Par-Ys), a reference that had popped up in Possession and in Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral.

In Ys, Newsom is a bard, a traveling storyteller accompanying herself with plucked strings. The orchestra is an echo, muttering strings a texture surrounding her voice and answering the harp, as though the audience can hear it and the singer can’t.

The originality of her voice and the use of a harp is only half of her allure; her impish poetical cleverness is the other half. Newsom’s exquisite lyrics, her precise images and phonic crispness, is what I love best about her.

In "Emily", a song named for her astro-physicist sister, she writes:

You taught me the names of the stars overhead, that I wrote down in my ledger –
Though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades, loosed in December,
I promised you I’d set them to verse, so I’d always remember…

In "Monkey & Bear", she tells a fable of an escaping pair of circus animals:

So, with the courage of a clown, or a cur,
Or a kite, jerking tight at its tether,
In her dun-brown gown of fur,
And her jerkin of
Swansdown and leather…

Unusual, stiff, supple and antiquated words for a then-24 year old: “I wasn’t born of a whistle, or milked from a thistle at twilight./ No; I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-need and upright…” ("Sawdust & Diamonds")

Listening to Ys, I feel as though someone was pouring fresh, cold mountain water into my brain, a cleansing shock.

According to friends, Newsom’s other recordings are more pop-like, less epic. But apparently what she lacks in depth she makes up in breadth with the recent release of her three-disc album, Have One on Me, which waits for me at the Library.

This is going to be a golden summer for music (though I think I saw a white butterfly the other day); Imogen Heap in June at the Paramount, and Joanna Newsom is at the Moore in August. This will make up for all the concerts I have sloppily missed while being in Seattle.

1 comment:

Erin said...

I'm purging my house and bringing you a blurb from a magazine about Jonanna Newsom. Probably nothing you don't already know, but I'm bringing it to you anyway.