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Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender

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Artist: Joanna Newsom

Album: The Milk-Eyed Mender

Label: Drag City

Review date: Apr. 13, 2004

Joanna Newsom is a 22-year old Californian with a voice that skitters nimbly across the cascading strings of her Lyon & Healy style 15 harp. A glance through the liners of The Milk-Eyed Mender, her debut full-length on Drag City, reveals images of pressed peacock feathers, foreign coins, and crooked needlepoint designs along with a lyric sheet boasting naptime psychobabble about kings, councilors, beetles, dirigibles, bones, and pinecones.

Newsom’s brand of folk is unabashedly naïf – she plays an instrument notorious for overwrought sentiment, strikes a pixie’s pose in her promo photos, and delivers lyrics that feel erudite only in whimsy (“See him fashion a cap from a page of Camus”). In a sense it’s fitting that The Milk-Eyed Mender’s embroidered cover is reminiscent of the latest volume in Irwin Chusid’s outsider music series, Songs In The Key of Z, because Newsom plays a little like a Chusid curio. The key difference is that Newsom defies Chusid’s primary tenet for outsider music – that the musician lack self-awareness. She’s cultivated an aesthetic of playful innocence, and though it’s easy to imagine her music being dismissed as fey, precious, or contrived, in fact it’s none of these things. It’s delightful and affecting in the oddest of ways.

Newsom may have the strangest, most take-it-or-leave it female voice since Kristin Hersh, and like Hersh she imbues her lyrics with onomatopoeic life. Every time Hersh sings “crazy loon” on Hips And Makers she trills and warbles it in a way that patents the phrase anew. Newsom has this level of command; she rolls phrases around her tongue like first utterances, repeating and redefining them. Which is not to say that they’re clichéd or elementary to begin with; her lyrics flow with extemporaneous logic, linked by interior rhyme schemes, topical associations, and freshly discovered meanings. On the opening track, “Bridges and Balloons,” Newsom weaves her way through a loopy sea shanty, an imaginary voyage on a caravel: “a little wicker beetle shell / with four fine masts and lateen sails / its bearings on Cair Paravel.” With glistening harp notes serving as her only accompaniment, the song is lithe and fanciful, apprehended from a curious distance, until Newsom swings into the chorus, flinging wide open the doors to her dream: “O my love / O it was a funny little thing / to be the ones to’ve seen.” Newsom maintains this careful balance throughout The Milk-Eyed Mender, keeping her surreal world at arm’s length while at the same time emotionally ready.

The other unique component to Newsom’s music is, of course, her instrumentation. Though trained in Celtic, Senegalese, Venezuelan, and Western Classical techniques, Newsom has tethered The Milk-Eyed Mender’s harp songs to Appalachian folk idioms, reminiscent in tone to traditional Mountain Dulcimer renderings. A devotee of Modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, Newsom similarly uses classical folk chord progressions as her foundation, elaborating with rhythmic twists and structural additions and subtractions. Songs like “Sprout and the Bean” and “Cassiopeia” feature the twinkling, ethereal arpeggios that one typically associates with the harp, while my two favorite tracks – “The Book of Right-On” and “Sadie” – both boast surprising, expressive low-ends that are more delicate than customary guitar or string-bass parts. Elsewhere Newsom adds piano and harpsichord backing, and the tinny quality of the latter perfectly compliments her spritely voice.

The last few years have seen no shortage of out-folk newbies, but The Milk-Eyed Mender is a rare accomplishment, as captivating and distinct a work as records by friends and touring partners Will Oldham and Devendra Banhart. If there’s a better debut in store for this year, I’m ridiculously excited to hear it.

By Nathan Hogan

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