Monday, April 16, 2007

REVIEW: Joanna Newsom (The Olympia, Dublin)

If you should be judged by your heroes, Joanna Newsom's shout outs to Beach Boy's collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, and trad harpist, Derek Bell, only begin to suggest quite how enigmatic the Californian's music is.

Even when you know that Van Dyke Parks provided the orchestral arrangements for her latest album, Ys, and Chieftain Bell once gave her a harp lesson, you are only at the gates of the weird world of the smiling figure about to shake out her long, blonde ringlets and begin strumming her golden harp.

Her experimental folk songs seem to encompass - sometimes rather inscrutably - an almost Dylanesque plenitude. Like Bob, if it occurs to her that a song requires more than ten minutes to find its way home, she gives it enough rope.

And also like Dylan (who, of course, she sounds nothing like) she isn't prepared to waste the symphonic stretches on solos: there is clearly far too much to say to leave the air to the instruments. Almost constantly, her high, chirpy voice sows a long, shiny thread that tweets snatches of fairytale simplicity, before hopping along to mysterious philosophical speculation and apocalyptic soothsaying.

For the most part, the great swells of Newsom's music are as dense and rapid and full of pileup possibilities as the grid at a grand prix. The sweep of Emily seems to demand as much concentration to listen to as it does to play; even in moments of jollity, such as the cowboy zen of Inflammatory Writ, or the verbal prism of This Side of the Blue, there is always a sense of a duty to pay attention amid the striding complexity.

Her current touring show strips away the orchestral backing that helped her concerts late last year make such a big splash. For this tour, she will offer instead minute gilding touches from backing vocalist, violinist and sliding tambura player (i was behind him -- in Box No.1 -- and couldn't quite see: if this guy was in Horslips, I'd have said it was an electric bouzouki, but the guy from Pitchfork thinks tambura) Best of all, though, is the stripped down (and barefoot) percussion section - never, I'm guessing, has a bass drum played so exquisitely, nor turned into such a colourful, expressive instrument.

The songs are long and complex with tiny rhythmic variations turning up after endless stretches of rapid fire lyrics. The band are all good players versed in the dark art of sitting still and listening carefully for bar 137 where their 3 notes are required to decorate Jo's headlong storm of harp notes. (Classical training, I guess.)

The thing is that although this music is beautiful, demanding, sharp, funny, and as ambitiously conceived and played as anything in popular music, the gorgeousness of it all eventually becomes kind of exhausting. Who'd have thought that the woman who sings

Never get so attached to a poem,
you forget truth that lacks lyricism

would forget the value of the few flaws.

There is a throb of expectation accompanying Newsom now that must have surrounded Dylan by the mid-sixties. Having so pointedly raised the bar, who could resist asking: "but what now?" So sure are we that Newsom is saying something portentous, and saying it with fierce drive, that we're prepared to hang on a little longer to work out what exactly it is.

If I had to guess, I think it's something about starting all over again; not from the beginning, but from some point in the best future we can imagine. All rather American, in the end.

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