Wednesday, November 29, 2006

And all at once it came to me, and I wrote and hunched 'til 4:30

#23 Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004)

The task gets more difficult. I find it hard to write something about this excellent album that isn’t either 1) wide-eyed or 2) trite and tired out. But let me try. What I love about the Milk-Eyed Mender is that has substance enough to make it survive the initial OMG! reaction it usually elicits. As in: Wow, it’s an album built around a solo harp player! Tee hee, did you hear her squeaky singing voice? How sickly-cute, she sings initially cloying lyrics about mollusks, bean sprouts, and dragons (not to mention that the jacket cover has an embroidered unicorn on it)! After hearing that, if you already haven’t rushed out to buy it, I’ll tell you that I wanted to write a review of it without using the phrase “homespun wisdom,” but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Maybe though, the notion of “homespun wisdom” (it has to be in quotes here, sorry) is a good conceit after all. It does, in fact, appear very literally, on “Sadie,” “Stretched on the hoop where I stitched this adage/ ‘Bless our house and its heart so savage.’” This couplet nicely encapsulates why I like this record so much. The phrasing is clever and precious, but at the same time, it hints (or more than hints) that something else, something decidedly not precious, lurks in here.

In fact, “The Milk-Eyed Mender” is filled with aphoristic goodness. One that strikes me as actually profound (and not just “Dooood, Bob Marley’s lyrics are so right on, man” profound) is, “Never get so attached to a poem / you forget truth that lacks lyricism” (“En Gallop”)/ Don’t let me bore you, though, with the idea that Newsom is some kind of fairie-queen philosopher. Most of her lyrics are just fun and compelling (“Advice from the master derailed that disaster/ he said, ‘Hand that pen over to me poetaster!’ / While across the great plains,/ keen lovely and awful,/ ululate the lost Great American Novels”, from “Inflammatory Writ”). Don’t feel embarrassed about using a dictionary, I certainly did. And not to forget the, uh, actual music, which is, to be brief (for once) inventive to my lay ears in both obvious (harp! harpsichord!) and subtler ways. This album may be attention-grabbing for its renaissance fair trappings, but it relies much more on strong songwriting than on gimmickry.

Ugh. I bet that this was as painful to read as it was to write, so I’m going to offer some bonus Warrant-talk. All you clowns who are trying to bring late-period, “Cherry Pie” era Warrant into the conversation are driving me mad. I’m an early Warrant purist. All those other trappings are Dylan-at-Newport, Genesis-after-Peter-Gabriel bullshit. Once they got dollaz and groupies and lost the hunger of having nothing to their name except “32 pennies in a Ragu jar” (actual lyric!), it just went downhill.


Papa Shoegaze said...

i wonder if sarah forbes feels the same? shawna and i gave this album to her as a gift 2 years ago. maybe brandon can let us know. anyway, if i can turn in like 12 milk bottles i plan to head over to cd alley and try and get a hold of 'Ys' on vinyl...'album of our era??' have you heard it? we got a taste on XDU yesterday...

Big Cougar said...

"Ys" is the real deal. But "Milk-Eyed Mender" is sweet in its own right. My family had a dog that died recently and her name was Sadie, so that track always reminds me of being in high school and playing with our black lab. Good call, Sean.