Wednesday 9 June 2010

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom is one of those artists that people get evangelical about. I have tried in the past to get enthusiastic about her, and perhaps it was just the wrong timing when she released her album Ys to wide critical acclaim. There was something just a bit pretentious about the idea of a modern/medieval harp/pop crossover artist who, if we're being honest, sounded a bit like a cat when she sang. I can put it in those flippant terms now, not because I have dismissed her for good but because, with the release of her latest 3 CD album, I have, in a sense, been converted. Newsom is a unique artist and the two hours of music that make up Have One On Me are filled with treasures and moments of magic.

Part of the reason for my Damascene conversion is the voice. In 2009 Newsom developed nodules on her vocal chords, words that strike terror into anyone who relies on their voice to make a living. Forbidden to speak, sing or even cry for two months, she had to develop a new method of singing in her recovery and as a result has found a voice far more soothing and welcoming to any first-time listeners (Kate Bush immediately springs to mind). I cannot hope to give a thorough enough review of a triple CD album here, especially one which contains such complex lyrics and musicianship, but I think the main thrust of what I want to say is that the converted don't need preaching to but those, like me, who have often wondered will find an absorbing experience that reveals subtle shifts of mood, long tracks that contain multiple themes without outstaying their welcome and a voice that no longer sounds like a witch and her cat rolled into one.

With such a lot to listen to there are strengths in every area you might hope to look. If it's catchy tunes you're after then you can find them on California, Good Intentions Paving Co. and even during the medieval formalism of '81. If it's exotic instrumentation you like then the Eastern ending to Baby Birch should do it for you. Multi-faceted structure is there in spades on the title track and simple yearning on No Provenance. And that's just the six tracks that make up the first disc. There's no filler here. Admittedly some tracks work better than others and it's unlikely that you'd have the time or patience to put all three on in the same evening but sustained listening has helped to highlight different themes and motifs that differentiate the discs and with such a consistently high quality throughout it makes it one of the best value-for-money purchases you could expect to make all year.


Anonymous,  9 June 2010 at 15:49  

Will: I know I am exposing my antideluvian age in asking this, but the audio example you provided reminds me of Loreena Mckennitt, another harpist/singer whose work I quite like. Is it typical of the rest of the three Cds?

William Rycroft 10 June 2010 at 00:08  

I'd say that musically this is one of the more restrained tracks. It's difficult to say what's typical on this album as there's so much variety (well, as much as you probably can get with harp-based music) but whereas this track is simply her and her harp, elsewhere there is far more to the arrangements.

Here's a link to a very different track: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STwVx6ynYjk

Tom C 10 June 2010 at 12:05  

Pleasant enough! Rather like Kate Bush (on first hearing) but definitely an inspired writer of songs

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