A friend once said to me, “You and I share the same taste in music, but I will never understand your love of Joanna Newsom.”
To be sure, Joanna Newsom is an acquired taste. The folkster-harpist sings (and many times, yelps) epic tales about tarantulas and executions, gingerly tossing around obscurities like, “etiolated fish-belly face,” and “dully-abrading black hair,” along the way.
Listening to Newsom requires patience, and a willingness to unhinge from the footholds of pop music. Newsom doesn’t pacify us with easily penetrable lyrics, nor does she hold our hands through the meanders of her rhythms and melodies. She made this clear with her first full release, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), and in case anyone wasn’t paying attention the first time, almost obstinately so on her sophomore release, Ys (2006). On the more sophisticated, but no less unfettered, Have One On Me (2010), we hear an artist who’s found her way to an album which simultaneously stretches her vivid imagination and successfully snake-charms listeners into the strange little world she inhabits.
Bookended by love songs, the 18-track Have One On Me, opens with “Easy,” a charming plea to the object of her affection (“How long’s it gonna take? Let me love you/How about it? How about what I have to say?”), and sweeps to a close with “Does Not Suffice,” a sparse and tender farewell (“The tap of hangers/Swaying in the closet/ Unburdened hooks/And empty drawers/And everywhere I tried to love you/Is yours again/And only yours”).
Love – and the letting go that often accompanies it – bolsters much of the album. “Baby Birch” is a heart-breaking lullaby sung for a child lost; the hymn-like, “On a Good Day,” is an olive branch extended to a love that didn’t last; “Esme” is a letter sung to a newborn baby; and there’s even a song about a bond ending in tragedy between horse and rider (“You and Me, Bess”).
Newsom’s quirky sense of humor isn’t lost amidst the bittersweet. It’s obvious she loves language, and relishes opportunities to put her writing background to good use. On “‘81,” while singing about the Garden of Eden, she notes that it was, “hotter than hell, so I laid me by a spring/For a spell as naked as a trout.” On the rollicking, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” in which she trades harp for piano, she sings, “And I regret, I regret/ How I said to you, honey, just open your heart/ When I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar.”
It’s not just clever wordplay that gives the words weight; their songstress delivers them in her unmistakably Newsom way, pushing them out from her lungs with seeming urgency. The allusions to child-like singing which plagued Newsom earlier in her career, can’t be drawn here on Have One On Me. Time, and perhaps her bout with vocal chord nodules, has bestowed a new boldness – and serendipitously, an elegance to her squeaks and sighs.
Throughout the album, Newsom cajoles her vocal chords, finger plucks, claps, piano keys, drums and horns from deep slumbers, spinning lavish stories with slow momentum and purpose. And this is how Have One On Me should be consumed, too – slowly, over time.
Joanna Newsom might not be for everyone. For the rest of us, she’s created the kind of album that gives back what you give, revealing itself to you more deeply the more time you spend with it.
I can’t help feeling protective of The Shins; an inevitable reaction, when a beloved, once little-known band is name-dropped with ease and invited to play on Saturday Night Live. It’s a funny thing – you feel cheated, but also proud (“My kid’s got skill and people are noticing!”).
Three albums in and The Shins have officially shed the skin of their underground indie anonymity, firmly planting their feet in today’s pop culture vernacular. Luckily for Shinsophiles everywhere, the band’s propulsion to fame has neither stunted their growth nor infected their music with cheap tricks.
Wincing the Night Away begins with ‘”Sleeping Lesson,”‘ which is befittingly sleepy at the outset; the music coaxes the listener to life with gentle, haunting insistence echoed by singer-songwriter James Mercer’s vocals (‘Go without till the need seeps in/ You low animal collect your novel petals for the stem/ And glow glow melt and flow/ Eviscerate your fragile frame/ And spill it out on the ragged floor’), but steadily gathers momentum, exploding into a flurry of drums and guitars and words and BOOM! You are in the Shins world, a lush tapestry of lyrics and instrumentation that somehow supports both melancholy and bliss.
In the lively, ‘”Australia,”‘ Mercer cryptically sings, ‘They gonna buy your life’s time/ So keep your wick in the air/ And your feet in the fetters till the day/ We come in doing cartwheels/ We all crawl out by ourselves;’ despite exuberant ‘la la la la”s (I dare you to find a man who can sing these with more charm), this song is about a lonely woman- a lone continent asea – clinging to an unhappy life (I think). The ethereal “Phantom Limb,” while boasting a tambourine cadence and pop sing-a-long-ability, is a bittersweet epic tale of sacrifice and exodus (I think).
Admittedly, The Shins’ unique sound is largely due to Mercer’s nuanced delivery of his lyrics. Mercer plays with inflection and rhythm, letting verses bleed into one another to suit the song’s current, sending the words adrift over the surface of the music. The songs become less about literal meaning and more about abstracted imagery and raw of-the-moment experience.
You’re never quite sure what the hell Mercer is singing about, but you really wouldn’t have it any other way because in weaving oftentimes impenetrable lyrics into tangible melodies, he conjures a dreamscape, an out-of-body listening experience that is altogether familiar and new – no amount of popularity changes that.
Cloaked in controversy and rumor, Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine infamously became the Little-Album-That-Couldn’t years before it was released. It would take a new producer (Mike Elizondo, known for his work with Dr. Dre) and a fervent Free Fiona fan campaign to rock Apple from a self-imposed six-year hiatus during which she schlepped around in a robe and watched Columbo reruns. It turns out hibernation – and an affinity for affable detectives- put a waltz in Apple’s step and a lilt in her song, making Extraordinary Machine, upon its 2005 release, the Little-Album-That-Couldn’t-but-Then-Did…Extraordinarily-Well.
Apple has often said that she writes songs as a way to give herself “pep talks.” Extraordinary Machine is the pep talk of all pep talks, a playful, empowering 12-track romp that beautifully speaks to the art of resilience, transformation, and self-acceptance. Opening with “Extraordinary Machine,” a buoyant, bell-and-horn-sweetened gem, Apple sets the stage for the rest of the album. We hear whisperings of her sister’s influence (cabaret ingénue Maude Maggart) in the music and inflection of the infectious title track, but the lyrics are all Apple (she matter-of-factly baits skeptics, singing, “Be kind to me or treat me mean/ I’ll make the most of it, I’m an extraordinary machine”). Ever the consummate wordsmith, she shapes her lyrics with wit and imagination, engaging in brilliant repartee with the voices in her head, and friend and foe alike. In the upbeat and charming “Better Version of Me,” she confesses, “I’m a frightened, fickle person/ Fighting, cryin’, kickin’, cursin’” and “Can’t take a good day without a bad one/ Don’t feel just to smile until I’ve had one/Where did I learn,” but by the end of the song, she vows, “Oh mister wait until you see/What I’m gonna be…Here it comes, a better version of me.” And in “Parting Gift,” a lovely, stark piano ballad reminiscent of “I Know” (When the Pawn…) and “Never is a Promise” (Tidal), she sings, “And from the first to the last time/The signs says ‘stop’/But we went on whole-hearted it ended bad/But I love what we started,” tartly following with, “I took off my glasses/ While you were yelling at me once more than once/So’s not to see you see me react/ Should’ve put ‘em, should’ve put ‘em on again/ So I could see you see me sincerely yelling back.”
From “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song),” the foot-tapping, sleuth-y lamentation about a love she just can’t quit to the underwater sleepiness of “Sailor,” from the thumping insistence of “Get Him Back” to the sardonic yet heart-breaking “Oh Well,” from the frenetic and spell-binding “Not About Love,” to the closing track, “Waltz,” a beautiful, summer day of a song about stillness that begs to be enjoyed with closed eyes, Extraordinary Machine is a musically ripe experience, a cerebral and delightful listen all the way through.
Since her debut, Fiona Apple has captivated listeners with her fist-and-piano- pounding songs that expound on the struggle to steady oneself in the midst of pain, self-doubt, and heartbreak. If her oeuvre is a trilogy, then Tidal (1996) is the introductory tale of a girl navigating the choppy waters of an irreconcilable past and wounded self, When the Pawn… (1999) is the intensely raw testimony of a young woman on the verge, and Extraordinary Machine is the heroic account of a woman coming into her own, a spirit revitalizing finale – the stuff of resolve, of hope, even joy.