Newsom Has A Lot To Say On This 3 LP Fairy Tale

The precedent for this sprawling, personal three record set might be Joni Mitchell’s Blue but don’t expect to be humming the tunes as you head for the exits.

The precedent for this sprawling, personal three record set might be Joni Mitchell’s Blue but don’t expect to be humming the tunes as you head for the exits.

Newsom may turn you on, but she’s not a radio. This album of exquisitely orchestrated and expertly performed “Appalachian chamber rock” (my concocted term) consists of time-signature shifting, melodically twisty late afternoon vignettes that combine Newsom’s child-like voice and curiosity with very adult themes. The mood is consistent with the melancholy found in Appalachian music, though it incorporates more whimsy.

Playing piano and harp and backed by small string ensembles augmented with brass and woodwind, Newsom weaves a rich tapestry of complex melodic invention and a rich narrative that will take numerous plays to decipher and process—though don't be surprised if you never manage it.

Fortunately, the sumptuously produced box set includes a full sized booklet containing the lyrics—not that they will be all that helpful in figuring out their meaning.

The sprawling title track may sound like a rousing drinking song but it’s not quite that, though eventually it gets to the drink but not before it takes you on a long circuitous path filled with unknown characters referred to on a first name basis, some of whom are royalty.

The fairy tale-like song references spiders, guards, a spent relationship with someone she calls “daddy longlegs”and don’t ask me what most of it or any of it means but the strongly rendered images are both abstract and immediate.

“Miss Montez, the Countess of Lansfield,appealed to the King of Bavaria,saying, ‘Pretty papa, if you are my friend—mister daddy longlegs, they are at it again!—Can I see you?’Poor Lola! A tarantula’s mountingCountess Lansfeld’s Handsome brassiere, while they all cheer”

Got that?

Most of the images are of a bucolic nature and the songs set in a countryside long gone. Even when snippets begin to make sense and a story appears, they quickly dissolve into ambiguity.

The sad “Baby Birch” moves slowly and appears to be about child abandonment but it changes tempo, takes on a stronger rhythmic thrust and ends with the singer skinning a rabbit and saying to it “ ‘wherever you go, little runaway bunny, I will find you.’ And then she ran, as they’re liable to do.”

Say, what?

Some of the songs are more easily understood but the denseness of the lyrics combined with the melodic diffuseness makes for ambiguous, mysterious, and at first somewhat difficult listening.

The three record spread makes absorbing the set easier in that you can play a side and retire to something more familiar and then come back for another side or two.

Don’t get the wrong impression: the listening pleasure is inversely proportional to the comprehension difficulties, for this is a gorgeous sounding production. You’ll hardly believe your ears when you hear the exquisitely rendered instruments and the clarity and solidity of the images.

It will take but a few seconds for you to note the luxurious quality of the production; the transparency, textural purity and harmonic perfection of the instruments and the pristine vocal recording. The LP set was mastered by Steve Rooke at Abbey Road, probably DMM but I'm not sure where it was pressed. The pressing quality is excellent overall, but the handling was less than perfect and two of the three records were scuffed, though only one small one "played."

So while you may have difficulty with the lyrics and it will take some time for the melodic lines to develop, the gorgeous sound will immediately sweep you away as your mind works to process and untangle the dense layers of Ms. Newsom’s multi-layered, transformative music.

Save for Sufjan Stevens, I’m not sure any other young musician today combines the musical, compositional, lyrical abilities and the sonic sensitivities twenty eight year old Joanna Newsom has consistently shown on her three studio albums.

Her last one, Ys (see review on this site) was engineered by Steve Albini, mixed by Jim O’Rourke and arranged by Van Dyke Parks, so don’t think the production here is a fluke. She knows what she wants.

Newsom has been dating SNL regular Andy Samberg, so clearly she’s got a good sense of humor and probably enjoys “Dick in a box,” which if you haven’t seen you should!

Topping all of this off, she has incredible legs, which she shows more than a few times in this thankfully dick-less box.

Have One on Me gets the highest recommendation for music and sound.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Joerebelle's picture

I definitely recommend this album to those who are looking for something more excitement in sounds. - Scott Safadi