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|::|| The Best Thing to Happen to the Harp—Ever |
It’s hard to create a more promising blip on the musical radar than that of 22-year-old harpist and folk singer Joanna Newsom. The prodigy who resides currently in San Francisco, where she also plays keyboards for glammy outfit The Pleased, creates haunting melodies that reference a startling array of folk, classical, country, and even Celtic tunes. Though she has been only playing solo shows for number of months, she has already managed to captivate some of indie rock’s most beloved icons, opening shows for Cat Power, Will Oldham and Devendra Banhart as well as garnering a wave of critical praise for her first full length record The Milk Eyed Mender , out on Drag City.
Newsom’s delicate, pixie-like visage belies the substantive feat that her appearance on the contemporary musical landscape represents. She grew up in Nevada City, California, but she sings with a voice that sounds like it was fostered in a barren prairie or mountain town. It’s colored with nasally vowels, jutting consonants and trilling refrains that challenge and surprise the ear with raw, unadorned cajoling. One might be tempted to call her voice fragile or childish because it catches from time to time as she precariously leaps from one note to the next in a style that betrays her penchant for singers with similarly unusual vocal styles like Karen Dalton or Laurie Anderson. But fragility for Newsom is only one expression in a vast catalog of feeling that she wants to showcase with her music. She is more than able however, to conjure up images of playful innocence, spouting out lines like these from “Bridge and Ballons”: “Catenaries and dirigibles/brace and buoy the living room/a loom of metal, warp woof wimble.” Initially, these may seem like words of whimsy, flung together because they sound so beautiful and strange floating on top of her softly bouncing harp refrains. But Newsom’s use of such phrasing gives listeners a glimpse of a sharp intellect and poetic sensibility, recalling the intricate phrase-work of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as much as that of childhood nursery rhymes.
Joanna Newsom is a revelation that presents itself immediately as a cute little treasure beautiful in its homespun simplicity. But with repeated listening, her initial charm gives way and reveals a more sophisticated thing. The wide-eyed youthfulness that propels both her music and her image is a foil for its true value as a project that is as complicated as it is ambitious, teeming with sharp wit, ample skill, and earnest inquiries into the purpose and the power of aesthetic forms, both old and new.