Joanna Newsom, Webster Hall, NYC- 11/13
NYC ROLL-TOP: The Milk-Eyed Meanderer
Being entirely different from a guitar or a piano, the drama one can create with a harp is, well, entirely different. And, for the moment at least, Joanna Newsom pretty much holds a patent on it — demure, complex, and pixie-like — at least in terms of music palatable (and marketable) to youth culture. The latter fact is a weird, maybe wonderful thing. It accounted for Newsom playing two shows at Manhattan's cavernously ornate Webster Hall on November 13th, at which she performed her new album, Ys in its entirety. But, shit, besides being pleasant to watch Newsom glide her hands over it, the harp doesn’t offer a whole lot of drama.
After playing a few songs by herself, including an opening "Bridges and Balloons" (the first and defining track from 2003's the Milk-Eyed Mender), Newsom brought out her band. Arranged in a semi-circle around her, they consisted of an accordionist, a drummer (barefoot, his kick-drum turned on its side to begin), a backing vocalist (with a mostly unused glockenspiel), and a pair of dudes who doubled on banjo and guitar. Like Sufjan Stevens’ albums, Newsom’s music is the type one can imagine being played off of scores at Lincoln Center in 20 or so years — which also might mean we will look back at Ys as the point when everything got too pretentious. It is unabashed art music.
But, for now, Newsom has a large audience, and that's cool, because Ys is challenging and intricate. Live, Newsom’s band mimicked Van Dyke Parks’ lush studio arrangements, instruments drifting around the album’s five epic songs, which each hover around the 10-minute mark. Occasionally, Newsom hit something resembling a tumbling groove on her harp. Her melodies meandered, always with intense rhyme schemes, but rarely with any sense of urgency. Or, you know, choruses. Without complete, Adderall-intense attention (and maybe even with it, I wouldn’t know), the effect was often like falling in and out of sleep while watching a movie. Images and verses focused briefly in the inner gloaming, and always slipped away too soon. It wasn’t unpleasant, but the big picture was impossible to see.
"There's a light in the wings, hits the system of strings, from the side, where they swing, see the wires, the wires, the wires," Newsom sang on the album's third track, an entirely solo take on "Sawdust and Diamonds." It was beautiful, but hard to connect several minutes later when she was singing about how "the slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision, while, somewhere, with your pliers and glue, you make your first incision." Granted, it all does make sense when one really thinks about (end even gets real haunting, when Newsom drops the title: "Hold me close, cooed the dove, who was stuffed now, with sawdust and diamonds"), but it comes off like Ovid or Virgil or something that is allegedly good for you. Or at least something that might be nicer to sit through, lest one start thinking about dinner.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com