Joanna Newsom
The Milk-Eyed Mender

Drag City
Reviewed by: Scott Reid
Reviewed on: 2004-05-05

Posted 06/24/2004 - 08:22:31 PM by mmgpsych:
 Scott: You wrote: 'It's all pretty hit-and-miss stuff with a tendency to extremes .' I suggest you run out and get yourself on a waiting list for an 'aesthetics' transplant as soon as possible. In a world of over-processed over-packaged mass-market mediocrity, Newsom is more than a mere breath of fresh air. She's a god-damned gentle hurricane of subtle originality and creativity. Get a clue. Soon. . .
Posted 06/27/2004 - 10:30:38 AM by bugsye:
 Scott: You review is right. I listened to this cd and it reminded me of a grade school recital, and not in a good way. Anyone with username of mmgpsych is probably, though not certainly, a person with a mental problem.
Posted 06/30/2004 - 03:30:51 AM by ryksmyth:
 Did you spend twenty seconds with this? Such a terrible review I don't know where to begin. No, it's not an easy album. And some dumbfucks aren't going to understand it. Their loss. "Peach, Plum, Pear" is my favorite, a crushing portrait of rejection, brilliantly arranged. Amazing album from start to finish, and, Scott, if you don't understand an album, either get help with it or ask for an easier assignment.
Posted 08/03/2004 - 04:51:25 AM by kidamnesiac11:
 It is interesting that the catchiest chord progression and verse transitions belong to the song you panned the hardest: "peach, plum, pear". If this song ever gets any airplay it will make this talented artist a star. I was in a coffee shop when I first heard this song and everyone in the place looked up... AND two different customers asked the clerk who it was. Good luck on your next review.
Posted 08/16/2004 - 12:39:00 AM by leighleigh:
 Some reviews should just come with honest warnings: “I don’t know fuck about shit, so just buy this album and listen to it until you’re sitting at your organ transcribing harp music and wishing your mom had forced you into songwriting rather than voice lessons.” I think what Scott mistakes for a, “mental problem,” is that which we who make music rather than write about it call imagination. All pretensions aside, this album requires more attention than just a passive listen, but once you’ve warmed up to it, you’ll be obsessed.
Posted 10/11/2004 - 05:20:52 PM by Liarbythefire:
 I honestly think this will become like Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush's debut album: People will ask why they weren't up on it when it came out. I'm really anticipating her next album or her equivalent of Blue.
Posted 11/22/2004 - 01:51:09 AM by IanMathers:
 ...and just like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush's first albums, not everybody is going to like this. And that's not because they "don't understand" it, it's because they don't like it.
Posted 11/28/2004 - 09:39:08 PM by mmacken:
 Well I've played this album about 50 times I reckon, to me it's an incredible breath of fresh air. Every note feels inspired, the music, words, playing and singing are all painting the same glorious, crystalline vision of some surreal otherworldliness. But then, I think matchbox20 shouldcome with a warning sticker - "BORING!"
Posted 01/21/2005 - 09:29:09 PM by Nick_S:
 I have to say I agree with majority of posters here... Maybe she's not the next Joni or Kate... However... this is an interesting record and deserves a little more credit than given. And, to me... using the term "artsy", either in the pejorative sense or denote something positive, immediately establishes you as being a purveyor of really, really weak shorthand. And... there are tonnes of voices which have unique, strange characteristics: Robert Wyatt, Arthur Russell, Tom Waits, Bjork, Yoko Ono, Devendra Banhart, Maja Ratjke... Doesn't mean that what they're doing should be immediately dismissed (as the reviewer kind of implies)... In the interviews I've read Newsom isn't into fairy-tale prententions. By all accounts, she dropped out of composition to pursue songwriting, was intially inhibited, but after hearing some choice folk/ old-timey recordings decided to just let her weird voice sing the songs. I don't think she's groundbreaking, but it's a novel little album. And the spare arrangements are uniformly brilliant. It's rare that you hear something that consistently interesting done on one instrument. While it's tempting to see the harp as a celtic/ faerie/ angel/ nymph signifier... Listen to how it's used. There's a real variety there. Often it sounds more like a guitar with 10x as many strings, than it does a harp per se.
Posted 02/10/2005 - 10:21:13 AM by Chrisassd:
 "Milk-Eyed Mender ventures into disastrous territory, putting far too much weight on the voice and away from a decent, or even listenable, melody" I can only imagine that you don't have much of a grasp of melody then! Terrible review, this is an important and amazing album.
Posted 02/20/2005 - 02:32:18 AM by alecbemis:
 I feel like this review gets it a bit more accurate: FEBRUARY 18 - 24, 2005 What We Talk About When We Talk About Harp Players Joanna Newsom is a riddle wrapped in heartstrings by ALEC HANLEY BEMIS An honest discussion about songwriter Joanna Newsom has to start with her voice. Its freakishness brings to mind Tiny Tim (large frame, small voice, ukulele) or, if you prefer, Tim’s less naive successor Beck (small frame, large voice, editing software). On first listen, their singing makes you giggle, shudder or swoon. Sometimes, Newsom’s voice stirs the heart, soaring like a helium-filled balloon, yet it also squeaks, like she’s just inhaled the contents of one. As the sound travels from larynx to lips, it’s impeded by at least three obvious flaws — a slight lisp, a tendency to waver, and consonants that are alternatively dull or overdefined. Listeners unmoved by her music might compare it to a precocious pre-teen girl or a deaf person overcompensating for never having heard actual speech. Several already have. Perhaps it’s this perception of vulnerability that’s caused so many indie celebrities to step to Newsom’s defense since her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was released last March. The buzz was immediate, but things kicked into high gear when novelist David Eggers devoted a Spin column to her in June. It was an unexpected and rapturous fanboy rant, though you could be excused if that’s not what you took it for. “If Joanna Newsom knows what’s good for her, she should be covered in boils” went the most memorable passage. “I picture her looking like Emily Dickinson. Newsom lives, I imagine, like a feral woman child.” (Actually, she’s quite comely, in an elfin sort of way. She could be cast as Legolas’ trophy wife if there were a next installment of The Lord of the Rings.) Nevertheless, Eggers’ conclusion was that her music could ward off evil, and his piece served as the cornerstone of a towering edifice of good press. Later, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock praised her in Entertainment Weekly, and this past summer, while I was driving around Dallas in the minivan owned by Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle, the couple who guide the Polyphonic Spree, they cited her as their favorite new artist. This is worth mentioning not because they’re cool minor pop stars, but because they’re young parents in a family van equipped with child seats. They loved Newsom because she’s as effective at keeping them riveted awake as she is at lulling their three young kids to sleep. Musical accompaniment is largely responsible for these hypnotic effects. Newsom favors the 46 well-articulated notes of the classical harp, occasionally switching to harpsichord or Wurlitzer, both close relations. A jumble of influences inform her playing, influences almost as peculiar as her voice and instrumentation. Rhythms are ringing and slightly syncopated, recalling the sound of the West African kora (a cross between guitar and harp); the homespun melodies come from Celtic and American folk; yet the overall artistry and sweep place her firmly in the West’s “high art” tradition. Her lyrics are self-aware (“And the signifieds butt heads/with the signifiers/and we all fall down slack-jawed/to marvel at words!”), her metaphors bold (“There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road”). The combined effect of the jarring vocals and hypnotic sounds makes me recall a night at the Hollywood Bowl, listening to Beethoven under the stars. It was a lulling thunder that ran roughshod through both logic and emotion. Newsom’s songs aren’t as complex as classical, of course, but they do stimulate tears and sleep, instinctual wonder and frantic cognition, all at once. It’s the psychological equivalent of being drawn and quartered, being split apart like a pair of wishbones. In other words, it’s a delicious kind of torture. If you’re looking to rock out or complement your interior decorating, Newsom won’t work for you, but those with broad imaginations might never get enough. *** A recitation of facts does little to explain Joanna Newsom, but let’s try: age 22; from a small town in Northern California called Nevada City (founded by the gold rush, preserved by hippies); lives in San Francisco; distant cousin of Gavin Newsom, the city’s gay-marriage-activist mayor. Slightly more telling is the fact that composer Terry Riley was a neighbor; that she played keyboards in the Pleased, a Strokes-indebted Bay Area band featuring Noah Georgeson, who produced her debut; and that she briefly studied composition and creative writing at all-female Mills College, an Oakland institution with a fine music program and quirky reputation. One professor, Pauline Oliveros, lists her professional interests as “Composition, the advancement of women in music and all the arts, and frog ponds.” Oliveros’ favorite instrument is the accordion. Newsom is a product of her environment, not a naif. This brings us to the second topic in our honest talk — namely, her inclusion in a cobbled-together scene of friends and acquaintances that came to prominence last year. It includes Devendra Banhart and his wiggy, sometimes magical free associations; the fuzzed-out, head music of Animal Collective; the Southern melancholia of Iron & Wine; and Sufjan Stevens’ lilting Christian-identified music. They’ve been saddled with a host of unfortunate titles — avant-folk, freak-folk, urban folk — only the latter of which adequately explains this is a trend restricted to city-bred hipsters. And that’s the problem. Extra-musical stuff — ideology, idealism and audiences with a surfeit of both — has provided these artists a womblike support system. Newsom’s friend Banhart is a cult leader at heart, and cults inevitably end in meltdown. In an interview this winter, he pleaded that people listen to his friends: “Their records are good for me, and I’m just personally going to be honest, they’re good for you too. I can say that they are, I’m sure they are, I’m sure they are.” By contrast, Newsom is a self-interested craftsperson, and I’m not referring to her penchant for well-fitting, delicately embroidered hippie outfits of the Renaissance Faire variety. She is enigmatic where her peers are just inchoate, able to be sexy one moment (“Your skin is something that I stir into my tea”) and then poke fun at such flirtation (“We speak in the store/I’m a sensitive bore/and you’re markedly more/and I’m oozing surprise”). Now for the showstopper: In my not-unusually-large record collection, I have 31 Bob Dylan albums, which I covet like the True Cross, and I find Newsom’s songs as compelling as many of them, especially his hallucinatory Blonde on Blonde–era work. She isn’t as catchy, of course, and certainly not as representative of a generation. (At this point could any musician try without mastering hip-hop?) But the writing is just as sharp, as fantastically detailed and confident, and as worthy of that icky word poetry, because it works both on the stereo and on the page. Now for what scares me about Newsom’s music: It’s not the quality of her voice, it’s not that she may be covered in boils, and it’s not that she’ll get swept away on the waves of fashion. It’s the horrible prospect that she won’t make enough of it. Where Dylan was inspired by a rangy figure like Woody Guthrie, Newsom has said she draws strength from folk balladeer Texas Gladden — an Alan Lomax find who rarely made it off her Virginia farm — and Ruth Crawford Seeger, stepmother to Pete and, like him, an activist for America’s common folk songs and common people. Even though Seeger was considered the 20th century’s most prominent female composer, she gave up that career for motherhood and protest. What does this mean for Newsom? Well, I wonder how long we’ll hear songs, at least poplike songs, from a singer capable of lines like these: Never get so attached to a poem you forget truth that lacks lyricism; never draw so close to the heat that you forget that you must eat The song “En Gallop” is about art and love, career and education and, suffice it to say, in it she grasps some things you’re not supposed to realize if you’re a young poet — that well-phrased truths are not absolute, that even if you’re caught up in a wave of love, most meals will be utilitarian, and only a handful candlelit. Basically, I wonder if Newsom has found her final destination, or if this might just be a weird stopover between youth and the enchanted forest of Mirkwood. For now, though, observe how such intellectually complex, well-structured music is so effective at touching the heart, and shattering it into a million tiny pieces. I recommend you start counting the bits — one, two, three . . . — and hope that Newsom keeps making music long after you’ve finished.
Posted 07/05/2005 - 01:31:51 AM by paperdrums:
 I think you got it right, Scott: The Milk-Eyed Mender is not a flawless album. Though I think defending "Inflammatory Writ" over "Peach, Plum, Pear" over is bizarre if you're using the bearability of her rasp as a gauge, you do make a decent point here about Joanna Newsom's occasional missteps (and "Three Little Babes" is a pretty fucking big one) that no one else cares to broach. It's interesting that most of the posters here are ignoring your positive comments about the record... You're obviously not blinded by how "fresh" the air that Newsom blows is, but you're not completely ignorant of her talents as a unique, blossoming artist either. If the review has a real problem, it's the capital C at the top. I'm not sure it reflects your opinions as well as it should, because this review, outside of some weak jabs at her lyrics, generally gives Newsom the benefit of the doubt.
Posted 07/05/2005 - 01:33:01 AM by paperdrums:
 Oh, and the lyrics to "Peach, Plum, Pear" sound like they were torn from a high school diary. Even Joanna Newsom isn't immune to writing bad poetry.