12 May 2011

2010: Joanna Newsom, Joe Pug

Joanna Newsom
Have One On Me

Released February 23, 2010 (Drag City)

Short Notes: The big indie star neither of us get.

Lin: C-

There is so much hubris on display here that I don't know if I should respect it more or less. First, the inevitable: a triple-disc? Over two hours worth of music? Of all the albums our preliminary 'To Review' list, this was the one I was dreading the most. I do not like The Milk-Eyed Mender at all -- it would be in the running for a top-10 slot of the worst albums I have. Ys is better, mostly because the first track there ("Emily") is somewhat good, but I still want to never ever put it on.

Like the Girl Talk album -- or any album that evokes such strong dislike -- I feel I ought to offer more details as justification. And like Girl Talk's All Day, Have One On Me is the best album by an artist that hasn't put out any good albums. Unlike Girl Talk, though, I dislike Joanna Newsom not because of some philosophical disagreement, but because the music just isn't good.

That's not entirely fair. Newsom is a talented arranger and player, and there are moments where I can start to see the beauty that other reviewers have mentioned. There are other moments where I wish someone I liked covered the song. This is where the bad part of hubris comes in: someone just needs to say "no" to her -- or at least be a sounding board. Example: Del Tha Funkee Homosapien is one of my favorite pure rappers, but none of his solo stuff is particularly good. But throw him in with another strong musical personality that can bring out the best and leave the worst -- someone like Dan The Automator -- and you get the genius of Deltron 3030.

Then there's also her singing, which I just find grating. Now, this is where I prove my cred by pointing out that Tom Waits is my favorite artist, I own and listen to a half dozen Beefheart albums, and I listen to more black metal than most folks you know. I'm not opposed to difficult music or singing. But while Waits' growl works when you're banging on chairs or engaging in whiskey-soaked mourning, the piercing aspect of Newsom's voice is never really at home over stately music. This is a personal preference of mine. YMMV. I will say that it's more appealing on this album, which goes a long way in explaining why I think it's her best.

To this album specifically: it's rambling and never gets into any sort of groove, either musically or narratively, so it feels exactly as long as it is. There are some moments that could someday form the basis for some sort of reverie, "You and Me, Bess," for example, with it's lone trumpet accompanying Newsom's harp. And the harp is less central than on her previous works, which is better: it's a good sound, but isn't full enough to base a song (let alone an album) around.

Brandon: C

So, I like it better than Milk-Eyed Mender, for what it’s worth. A lot of the “rough” edges (or, at least, as rough as the edges of a shrill-singing harpist can be) have been smoothed out, and although these are longish songs, they aren’t the epic ten minute long tracks of her last record, either. In all honestly, what I spot here are hints of Joni Mitchell (which, I’ve discovered, is the same point Pitchfork made when this came out. I swear, I came up with it on my own before I read the review), especially in terms of her phrasing, her way of dancing around the note in a not-quite jazzy way.

If you’re not familiar with Joanna Newsom (not that any of our 5 regular readers are), what can you expect? She composes delicate, sometimes intricately-arranged, sometimes sparse and airy songs on the longish side, tied together by her harpwork (and, on this album, her piano-playing) and her high, heavily affected voice. Some people find her work to be transcendent, and after 3 full listens (and for any triple album, let alone one you don’t like, that’s a chore), I’m starting to understand why some people like her so much. This is serious music, composed carefully to set a mood. It’s expertly sequenced, moving from the whimsical (‘81) to the plaintive (“Baby Birch”) in a few careful moves.

The problem is that I find it empty, and well, boring. Newsom’s voice is, well, different--challengingly shrill, if you will, and her earlier work verged, vocally, at least, on freak-folk--intentionally meant to be a little off-putting. She sounds a lot more in control of her instrument now, but a lot of the squeakyness remains. But my real problem is that her music is “precious”--too delicate, too understated (in all aspects except her voice), too cute, for me to engage with. Unlike Joni, or Laura Nyro (another touchstone, now that there’s more piano, although Newsom is much more intentionally avant-garde), she just doesn’t have a voice that gives the music depth and soul. Instead, it just sits on top of the pleasant but not terribly exciting music, demanding I listen actively to something that’s otherwise not terribly exciting.

Joe Pug

Released February 16 (Lightening Rod)

Short Notes: If you're buying one singer-songwriter album this year by an artist who's name starts with a "J," buy this one.

Brandon: A-

This is a remarkably strong offering from a young alt-countryish singer-songwriter who writes in a remarkably immediate, personal voice. Because his palette is rather limited (fairly simple acoustic guitar, some harmonica, drums on just a couple tracks), there are moments when the formula pops its head through--Dylan, when he’s at his best (“How Good You Are,” “Unsophisticated Heart”), Paul Simon or James Taylor (both of whom I really don’t enjoy) when he’s less musically or lyrically sharp (“Disguised as Someone Else”). The real treats here are the last two tracks, though, which are unrepresentative of the rest of the album. “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” sits alongside Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues” and Kasey Anderson’s “I Was a Photograph” as one of a collection of remarkable songs about my generation’s wars and their personal consequences coming out of the alt-country movement. Perhaps better still is “Speak Plainly, Diana,” the only track here recorded with a full band. Highly recommended.

Lin: B+

Wasn't initially that impressed with this album, figuring it would just add to the pile of good-but-unspectacular alt-country/folky releases we've reviewed for this project like, for instance, the Charlie Parr or Doug Paisley albums. I agree with Brandon that the two best tracks are the final duo, but it's the second track ("How Good You Are") that convinced me my initial assumption was incorrect. The rest of the songs here are strong enough to hold the middle from sagging. It's not quite remarkable enough to be an every-week type album for me, but it's definitely one of the stronger 'dude with a lone guitar' albums from 2010.

1 comment:

BruceNesmith said...

Thanks for the reviews, gents. But I do like "Disguised as Someone Else" a whole lot. Maybe it speaks to my inner stalker?