Joanna Newsom

Brian Bartels

It can be tasking to deconstruct Newsom's epic landscapes, yet you still find yourself listening, quiet, patient, like a child tired from playing all day. It's so rough, so soothing.

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom

City: New York, NY
Venue: Webster Hall
Date: 2006-11-13

Mondays. While many are content to treat the week’s beginning like the plague it is -- going out for a quick bite after the sun goes down or staying home and dreaming of the weekend -- I like to grab the day by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake. And, in New York City, it’s not very hard. On any given evening, I can open an events guide, close my eyes, and drop my finger anywhere on the page. On this particular Monday night, one could see former Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard at the Bowery, Panic! At The Disco at Madison Square Garden’s Theater space, Modest Mouse in the first night of a six-show stint, legendary Czech politick-rockers Plastic People of the Universe at the Knit, Les Paul and his Trio at Iridium, the Cult at Irving Plaza, Emilie Simon and El Perro Del Mar and Governor at Joe’s Pub, Jeff Daniels at Birdland (the actor? awesome!), or the Raconteurs opening for Dylan (when I saw that show my heart skipped a beat). So, the problem isn’t finding something to do as much as deciding what you’re willing to miss. But, even with all those options, I didn’t think twice: I skipped every one to see Joanna Newsom.

I’ve tried to physically express -- with hand gestures, concentrated gazes, and tightened neck muscles -- to anyone in earshot how important it is for them to hear Newsom. Articles written about this mid-twenties harpist cover every square inch of adjective. She's a critical favorite, perhaps because, after hearing so many bands that sound exactly like one another, a unique entity like Newsom is instantly reviving. It can be tasking to deconstruct Newsom’s epic landscapes, yet, even when you feel the message growing cloudy, you still find yourself listening, quiet, patient, like a child tired from playing all day. It’s her voice: so rough, so soothing.

In a society where men dominate big-budget films and TV shows, professional sports, and, yes, the New York music scene on a Monday night, I find comfort in knowing that its hours are also possessed by a gilded banshee bound by nothing. Though she’s already released one critically acclaimed full-length album, she remains on the outskirts of music’s orb, her sound labeled “freak folk” -- a moniker I’ve had difficulty accepting. Though necessary, it’s a lazy disservice to the artist to pigeonhole such ambitious sound.

This rainy New York Monday drew a full audience to Newsom’s late show. She didn’t arrive until just after eleven, the expanse of stage lights limited to four mauve spotlights standing above her massive, beautiful harp. It doesn’t take long for Newsom to quiet her audience, soliciting the crowd’s attentiveness with the restrained urgency of “Bridges and Balloons.” In the few short years she’s been recording, her live vocals have matured immensely. There is a sensual control in her delivery, her wavy long brown hair cascading over her shoulders as the lyrics unfold, evoking that haunting, yet familiar, feeling.

After playing two songs from her first album, Newsom introduced the next as a traditional Scottish tune, working into it up from a whisper. These three songs provided a fetching warm-up for what would follow: Newsom played her new album in its entirety. Ys’s five songs -- recorded by Newsom with the help of Steve Albini, Van Dyke Parks, and Jim O’Rourke -- last a daring 55-minutes and are as ambitious as they are epic. Instruments layering the journey ranged from an acoustic guitar to a banjo, an accordion, a saw, and my personal favorite -- which was unfortunately underused -- a glockenspiel.

In a packed crowd of a little over one thousand, I stayed on the outskirts, a decision which complicated the sound. Background noise from inconsiderate bartenders echoed throughout the fringe; people shooshed each other; security guards laughed at the “shooshing” fans; and cash registers howled like obnoxious gnomes. All the while, Newsom continued to pluck the strings with conviction -- an impressive sight to see. She played remarkably fast at times, and I was so unaccustomed to the harp that, from my distance, it sometimes seemed she was scratching at empty bits of air. The band provided only minimal support -- it really is her show -- and it was peculiar to see them stare in silence while she dug into extended solos. As Newsom worked her fingers across the strings, she was nothing short of mesmerizing. Her elbows jerking out every now and again, she weaved her musical webs with passionate eloquence.

The walls of Webster Hall couldn’t have offered a more appropriate arena: adorned with sea horses, whales, porpoises, sharks, starfish, and seashells, fiery moons, and half-moons, the wallpaper seemed an accompanying pictorial to her off-kilter tales. And people were swept into it: a girl standing next to me broke into sobs when Newsom started playing “Sadie” and the audience erupted into giant applause after every song.

And, as I watched Newsom’s cocooned lullabies unravel, I forgot all the other fun the paper had promised. I didn't wish to be anywhere in New York other than there, where clouds crossed among whispering angels, and we all stood starbursting toward daylight.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.