Even taking into account the cyclical nature of pop music, which dictates that each generation’s dreck is sure to become its offsprings’ camp prize, the ascent of harpist Joanna Newsom to goddess of the Pitchfork-addled indie-rock nation is nothing short of astonishing. Exactly how a performer who embraces many of the early-’70s musical values that were despised and overthrown by the original punks — overlong, overwrought musical suites; an emphasis on mythical, fantasy-based material; a desire to somehow educate and elevate silly old rock music to a higher artistic level — came to be embraced by those who would style themselves as punk’s descendants (and on one of the genre’s most principled labels) is something which can only be understood through the serpentine history and politics of cool. While she’s unquestionably a musician of great talent, the greatest appeal Newsom has is that in today’s musical landscape she’s unique. Her fans are too young to remember the days when prog was powerful, and how dreary that dominance became. The distance from the ’70s, and the animosity with which some now bear the music, are exactly why it’s ready to be revived and celebrated.
To be fair, prog-rock was not all bad. In many ways, it’s up there with disco as an unjustly maligned genre. The greats — Genesis, King Crimson, Soft Machine, certain Krautrockers — were fueled by the same need to explore and innovate as the Beatles, Bowie, Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground. (What were hour-long improvisations of “Sister Ray” and John Cale’s scraping viola if not fore-runners of prog?) If punk failed to eradicate prog, that was never really one of its goals: Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill and Robert Fripp became important and respected players in post-punk. Such latter-day alt-rock luminaries as Radiohead, Sigur Ró, the Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens and the Mars Volta all traffic in the vocabulary of prog. But all of those artists at least maintain some connection to rock dynamics and excitement (where prog went wrong was in too often disappearing up its own ass while chasing off after faeries and hobbits and forgetting the “rock” half of “progressive rock.”). Which brings us back to Joanna Newsom. Her music may or may not be progressive, but it definitely doesn’t rock.
Newsom definitely has a unique vision and has the spine to pursue it, no matter where it might lead. She’s a gifted instrumentalist and possesses an odd but beguiling voice that mixes Björk and Victoria Williams. All of Newsom’s strength’s are showcased on her enchanting debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. The album gets off to a strong start with the absolutely delightful “Bridges and Balloons,” an infectious fairy tale of a journey in a “little wicker beetle-shell.” The rest of the album carries on in the same vein, as Newsom delivers one catchy, concise gem of skillful harpistry and eccentric vocals after another, weaving a magical spell of whimsy and wonder. A hallmark recording of the freak folk movement, The Milk-Eyed Mender was a justifiable underground sensation.
The acclaim seemed to go to Newsom’s head, and the follow-up reeks of ambition with a capital ART. Gone are the simple, beguiling tunes of the debut, replaced with defiantly overlong opuses — five compositions totaling nearly an hour, though each seems about that long. Song length wouldn’t be an issue if Newsom had bothered with anything resembling structure. (At least when old school poppers-turned-proggers Stackridge spent 20 minutes going on about the horrific Slark, they set it to a right jaunty little tune.) On Ys, whose Renaissance Fayre-style painting on the cover recalls the grand old days of Kansas (yikes) and is named for a mythical Celtic kingdom (yegads), Newsom does listeners no such favors, and instead strands them in a meandering hell. She plunks away at her harp and seemingly free-associates lyrics while Van Dyke Parks (an old master at landing work bearing no relation to rock music in the rock section of record stores) provides aimless orchestral squiggles and noodles in the background. It’s like being stuck in the seat next to a chatty, batshit backwoods pixie for an 18-hour plane ride. All hope is abandoned after the first five minutes or so of the opener “Emily,” which begins promisingly and is moderately mesmerizing until Newsom begins caterwauling about meteorites. After that, the album becomes an exercise in looking at one’s watch and wondering how long the damn thing is going to go on. (The presence of Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke shows that somewhere along the line either Newsom or Drag City worried enough about alt-rock credibility to put their indie-god ass-prints on the studio furniture.) As excruciating as The Milk-Eyed Mender was magical, Ys buckles under the hefty weight of its aspirations.
Newsom followed up Ys with Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band, an EP recorded with the musicians who backed her on the Ys tour. It offers re-recordings of one track each from The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys, along with one new track. They do no damage to Mender’s “Clam, Crab, Cookie, Cowrie,” but Ys’ “Cosmia” clearly benefits from its surroundings: the 13 minutes are far less patience-testing in the absence of other epics. The most important cut on the EP, though, is the previously unrecorded “Colleen.” At a relatively brief (for Newsom) six minutes, the upbeat mix of Appalachia and Ireland is plenty agreeable, and demonstrates that Newsom has not lost complete touch with the charming and relative concise songcraft of The Milk-Eyed Mender.
Proving that lack of ambition will never be Newsom’s downfall, she followed the EP with a three-disc extravaganza. Fortunately, Newsom has grasped the concept of pacing, and Have One on Me flies by much quicker than the seemingly month-long single disc of Ys. Newsom still has a tendency to leap into meandering epics, but rather than overwhelming with one endless piece after another, she mixes them in with small, tuneful gems and adds more instrumental variety to the proceedings, avoiding an interminable slog.
The uniformly excellent Disc One commences with the piano-and-orchestra piece “Easy” — six minutes with enough changes in tempo and instrumental dynamics to remain engaging. Newsom herself sounds confident and relaxed, not unlike Kate Bush, circa Lionheart, when she began stretching out into jazzier tempos. The epic title track follows, but Newsom shifts it between percussive passages and barrages of harp and, finally, layers of wordless vocals. The simple and absolutely magical “81,” which follows, is simply Newsom and her harp performing perhaps the loveliest tune she’s yet composed. The propulsive single “Good Intentions Paving Company” seems built on the same bass piano line as Billy Joel’s “My Life”; velocity and tension mount before it ends on a vamping trombone solo. Disc One concludes with “Baby Birch,” which begins quietly and drifts for a while before breaking into a backwards march laced with guitar feedback then ends up somewhere in Asia. When Newsom keeps things mixed up and tightly focused, she’s every bit as fascinating as her supporters claim.
The lack of dynamic diversity bogs down Disc Two. It begins promisingly with the brief “On a Good Day,” which feels like something Stephen Foster might have written. Things drag with the funereal “You and Me, Bess” and the first half of “In California,” before Newsom livens up the back end of that song with dramatic keening vocals. Individually, all six tracks have memorable melodies and performances, but there’s not enough variety in pacing or performance. Conversely, Disc Three doesn’t have any songs as strong as the best ones of Disc Two, but the overall flow is better. “Soft As Chalk” morphs midway into a piano jig; “Kingfisher” runs a whole gamut of moods during its nine minutes. Have One on Me closes with “Does Not Suffice,” which builds from a whisper to a percussion apocalypse.
Apart from considerations of her artistry, the stubborn truth remains that Newsom’s indie-rock credibility has more to do with her label than music. If her records came out on Shanachie or Rounder, she would have made as big a dent in the indie consciousness as Liona Boyd or the Boys of the Lough. Connections to an estimable punk label and people like Albini and O’Rourke attract a lot more attention in certain circles than a harpist plucking out neo-Appalachian folk ditties would normally receive. At least Have One on Me serves a reminder that she can be well worth attention.