For some reason, the universe decided that today was the day that I should articulate exactly why I like the music of Joanna Newsom. Over the course of the day, I found myself involved in three wholly separate conversations (One over twitter, one over email, and one in person) where the other party was asking me why I was so fervently aboard the goodship Newsom.
Below is a fleshed-out version of an email I sent to a friend, who had written to ask me to give him my ‘pitch’ on why he should bother with this new album, “Have one on me.”
Why I Like Joanna Newsom
Lyrical turns of phrase: For me this is a huge, huge part of the appeal. In my hyper-subjective view, her lyrics are simply in a class way, way beyond most anything else working pitchforkians into lathers. Without fail, I’ll come away from listening with a bizarre word usage stuck in my brain, or a line that seems like it SHOULD be clunky but ends up fitting together perfectly. On ‘Ys,’ the particular line that often stuck in my head was:
“Picking through your pocket linings – well, what is this? / Scrap of sassafras, eh sisyphus?“
Arrangements: I reserve special admiration for people who can put together 12 minute songs that focus on story and songwriting and not ‘Jamming.’ The fact that the music to these marathons doesn’t wear or become horrifically repetitive is also a worthy achievement in my opinion. Enlisting the likes of Van Dyke Parks to throw together her string arrangements also certainly helps.
Instrumentation: The harp parts she writes always seem to have a strong focus on rhythm, while necessarily skewing towards arpeggios – which I just like in a subconscious way. Also, watch any live performance from the “Milk-eyed Mender” tour – you kind of have to admire the effort that goes into playing these insane, intricately-picked songs and singing so demonstratively at the same time:
Singers that can be described as ‘demonstrative’ are usually pretty touch and go for me – ‘look at me I’m sad’ or ‘look at me I’m angry’ or ‘look at me I’m really FEELING this part’ will almost infallibly result in a big ‘NO THANKS,’ but something about ‘look at me I’m a really happy crazy grandma’ gets a pass from me. I can’t explain it.
The voice: I get that people hate the voice affectation, and I totally understand that being the polarizer. For some reason, though, it’s never bothered me. For what it’s worth, I think her voice has definitely been ‘softening’ from album to album. A lot of the abrasive, crackly edge that you hear all over the first album is rounded off on the latest one, while the character and weird-metered delivery are retained.
Finally, I’m not gonna deny it, she is very fetching.
Ok, end of email. While digging around on youtube for examples, I found the video below: a really nicely-done cover of Newsom’s ‘Book of Right-on,’ edited in the ‘Pomplamousse‘ style. The percussion and harmony accents are particularly slick.