Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys

I can understand why people – actors, painters, singers, people who run racialist internet forums – dislike being painted into a corner by the impressions of others. It can be real hard to dig out of a pit filled with the steaming expectations of others (especially with the large Christ-killing shovels of teh joooooooooooooooooos); some people never escape this trap.

Ms. Newsom seems to be quite frustrated with this process – though I have no idea what her stance on racial purity happens to be – because she’s not a Tolkien-folkie weirdo, and like everyone else who makes modern alt-folk-weird music, she wants nothing to do with that batch of labels. (I can’t blame any of them, frankly, for eschewing such an ugly and meaningless word.)

On the other hand, if you play the harp, dress like a princess hippie from the land of Prancington Forest in your promotional shots and the cover of your newest album actually requires people to roll a 20-sided die just to look at it, you may find yourself typecast as a folkie elf girl. Just sayin’.

But here’s the real deal: she’s more like a Cadbury egg with two distinct natures. The external shell is hand spun Renaissance Faire milk chocolate, but when you bite into it your teeth are assaulted by a gooey sadness. The gooey sadness is half the package, and the ever-burning purity of artistic intentions aside, she can be enjoyed from either direction. She’s an attractive young woman with a very odd intonation, whose words are twisted and pinched by both her mouth and her potential meanings.

Let’s start with The Milk-Eyed Mender, her first full-length album. If you listen to her lyrics closely, there’s very little to be found that’s even slightly happy. But her delivery is – sorry, ma’am – pitched in such a way that’s more wistful than sad; and there’s the issue of the harp. Outside of classical music, harps are squarely set with birdcalls and kalimbas in the land of exotica. That’s all ren-fest milk chocolate that anyone can enjoy from a distance. (Or millke chocko’layt or however the nerds might massacre Middle English, though I have been told that modern ren-fests are more like a slippery, mead-soaked bodily fluid swap meet than a demonstration of a lifelong commitment to involuntary virginity, which is neither here nor there)

Up close, the gooey sense of longing comes through, and it makes your teeth hurt from the inside out. Still, it’s a good hurt in the same way that merciless fiction is a good hurt (John FowlesThe Magus weights heavily on my mind lately for reasons related to this) and The Milk-Eyed Mender as a whole is an excellent album; lean and tight songs that are unified by mood and instrumentation but little else. One of the best tracks is a harpsichord-driven – when was the last time you heard anyone say that? – song called “Peach, Plum, Pear.” Just the way she pronounces “floozy” – a pall of anachronisms hangs over what Ms. Newsom does, unintended or not – is almost unspeakably adorable, but the song itself is about putting herself out emotionally to attract the attentions of a man, and apparently failing. There’s much to be read into the lyrics, if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’m fairly content to sing along without much though. Surface reader, dilettante, blah blah blah blah, whatever – I can totally beat you up.

The problem with her voice, ultimately, is that sort of like David Tibet – now there’s a split EP waiting to happen – the way her voice digs into your brain can be fatiguing. At a little over 50 minutes, The Milk-Eyed Mender is just long enough. You get your elf-girl-thee-fairae-qhueeneeee/[something smart-sounding and deep] fix and put it back on the shelf until the next time you need to get a little harp action.

This issue is exactly what kills Ys for me.

The first track, “Emily,” is fantastic. Truly fantastic. It’s super long – 12 minutes – and is largely about astrophysics, but it works. The problem is the rest of the album, which is utterly fatiguing. Yes, I know it’s everyone’s favorite record of 2006, but everyone else – as usual – is sadly mistaken. (A lot of those people also like The Decemberists, the current kings of dork-rock)

Thankfully, there is a solution to this imbalance; rip a copy of “Emily” to your hard drive, put the album back up on the shelf and forget about the rest of it. When people talk about Ys just nod politely, but remember it as an extraordinarily-extended single with a neat hook and a dorky cover. Artistic intent is a great thing for artists to talk about in the middle of their artful artistry, but those of us who subsidize their gloriously marginal and romantic lifestyles have to make real choices about our time. Sometimes this means pretending an author didn’t write a novel (or that his estate didn’t butcher his legacy in search of effort-free cash) or, as with the case of the otherwise excellent Bicycles and Tricycles by The Orb, erasing a track with the abominable MC Soon T and acting as if it never existed.

Joanna Newsom page at Drag City

Live recording from WFMU

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys

  1. I’m with you on the ‘one good track’ thing…but maybe it’s cos I haven’t spent enough time with the rest of the album?

  2. smacky

    Very nice Cadbury Egg analogy. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed my first one of the season yesterday. (Yes, they are already on shelves!)

    I haven’t spent enough time with Ys yet, but I can say it is is beautiful if not overly-prog-rock-ish (due to the wanky song lengths) in concert.

  3. Swimmy

    I like all of the tracks on Ys. I just don’t like all of them together. Just as you say, it’s too tiring. I’ll remember it as five good singles.

  4. i generally have no problem with long songs. one of my favorite albums is music for airports (another is time machines by coil which i think i’ll liveblog some time).

    but the production is pop-wank (understandable considering who produced it) and utterly unsuited to the weirdness of her voice. the strange structure of emily, for whatever reason, works – maybe it’s the hook, or the sparseness – but she needs a lot of room for her weirdo elf hippie girl voice to flow.

  5. Toups

    Well… I love Ys as a whole, but my favorite song is probably Monkey and Bear. Of course, I was only able to fully appreciate it by listening to it outside the context of the album.

    The thing about Ys is that her singing is generally more reserved and in a more palatable range than in Milk Eyed Mender, so having to be exposed to it for so long isn’t quite as exhausting… At least to my ears, anyway. But then, I’ve never had any problems with her voice, and have weird taste in singers, so what do I know.

    In conclusion: Joanna Newsom? Totally would.

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