I was kicking aimlessly around the apartment last Wednesday night, so my roommate Mackenzie invited me along to hear the quirky indie-folk-pop singer/somgwriter Joanna Newsom
down at the decreasingly legendary concert venue Toad's Place
in town. Mackenzie's been a Joanna Newsom fan for a while, but I'd never heard her; but I figured, Hey, I've got a soft spot for quirky indie-folk-pop music, so I like the odds.
(I'm not sure whether the phrase "indie-folk-pop" has any actual, pre-existing meaning. Now I say it means like it sounds.)
And I like the music too! Joanna Newsom puts on a fun show: she plays the harp (full-sized, classical concert harp) and sings, and here she was backed up by an appealingly odd ensemble: supplementary vocalist, drummer (bass drum, smaller bass drum, suspended cymbal), banjo/guitar, another guitar, accordion/musical saw.
She plays the harp most of the time like it's a big guitar, subdued, but now and then she breaks out into one of those classic solistic harp-sweepings: fantastic. But it's Joanna Newsom's indescribable voice that glues you: sung from way up in her throat and head, it sounds a touch childlike and nasal, salty or maybe papery, with an abrasive edge and silky tensile strength. She casts it up and down melodies that sometimes drift, sometimes syncopate elastically; now and then she'll hit a sudden high note on an endearing, piercing warble.
I don't like the "you love it or you hate it" cliche, but her voice has something of that to it. I think of it as an acquired taste it only took me fifteen seconds or so to acquire.
She sang down an entire new album, composed in five extended songs—maybe I'm just hopelessly classical-minded, but I like this plan. You avoid the patness of simple songs, and in moments that would be relatively uninteresting in and of themselves it feels like you're on the way somewhere else, in a good way, like you've hiked down one hill and are going up another.
I don't remember too many of the lyrics (I also didn't make them out enough to really absorb the content) but what I caught was whimsical and allusive, with some neat rhyming patterns.
All in all it's very friendly stuff, with indie-quirkiness and folk-earnestness and pop-catchiness, and I'm very happy to have been lit up by it for an evening. So, in closing: hooray, Joanna Newsom.Short version:
"Fantastic! . . . Whimsical and allusive. . . . Hooray!"
Quirky music addendum:
Yesterday while I was walking back from lunch, whichever campus carilloneur was manning the Harkness Tower
brought out a version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." On a fifty-four-bell carillon this sounds a bit ungainly, and due to the way the individual bells resonate, unusual melodies and cadences in unexpected keys get encrusted with an echoey, gothic-sounding belltower dissonance.
It's surprisingly touching: a very large instrument trying to sing something very gentle, lending its clear phrases an unintentional brokenness.