JOANNA NEWSOM & NORTHERN SINFONIA/ALASDAIR ROBERTS The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 15 January 2007
Alasdair Roberts is a dour-looking Glaswegian, formerly of indie types Appendix Out; he announces that hell be playing songs from his imminent album Amber Gatherers, which rather scuppers my diligent preparation in placing his earlier The Crook Of My Arm on heavy rotation. If I were to call his music Wicker Man folk it would probably seem like an insult, but theres something eerie and angular beneath the surface of his songs about Scottish kings, carousing and drinking whisky from shells, which are, I think it would be fair to say, respectfully received by the audience. He closes with the traditional Barbara Allen; finely fettled, rootsier than Art Garfunkels and more jagged and authentic (whatever that means) than Dylans.
My first thought on shuffling into the auditorium for the first time in, ooh, nine months was that the hall had been painted. I mean, its never actually dull in there, but tonight it seemed lighter and brighter than I remembered it. Maybe it had something to do with the bloody big harp that was parked centre stage never before have I seen people taking pictures of the instruments between sets. Perhaps it had something to do with the rapturous sense of communal anticipation, because this evenings entertainment promised to be something out on the far fringes of special. Joanna Newsom is a 24 year old Californian harpist whose recently released second album Ys brings together diametrically opposed sonic standard bearers Van Dyke Parks, Jim ORourke and Steve Albini in the service of five longggg songs (the shortest of which, Cosmia, weighs in at a distinctly non-poppy seven minutes; Only Skin pushes seventeen). The closest brush most folk are likely to have had with her music is the Orange cinema advert set during the 2003 New York power cut, which is soundtracked by her This Side Of The Blue. Advance mutterings suggested that tonight wed hear Ys in its chronological entirety, backed by the Northern Sinfonia, but, though factually correct, such a statement really doesnt begin to map out just how phenomenal this evening was.
Consider, for example, the many ways it differed from yer standard rock gig. Well, theres a 30-odd-strong chamber orchestra, for starters, with all its accompanying paraphernalia: a conductor, sheet music (well, Ive seen that at Van gigs before now, but even so ) and tuning up (which I half expected some wag to applaud, but the audience were appropriately respectful; having said that, it was probably the only musical utterance that wasnt granted a standing ovation during Newsoms sets). A whole album, played in sequence again, I was a bit confused as to whether we should be clapping between songs or let the whole piece unfold in symphonic majesty, but the tsunami of approval that rolled over the closing moments of Emily kind of decided that one definitively. A standing ovation halfway through the concert, albeit in admiration of the departing Northern Sinfonia. The bloke behind me bellowing on and on about the Orange ad before impressing anyone within earshot (i.e. seemingly everyone in the Bridgewater) by casually loudhailing that hed seen Kate Bush on her sole tour.
And the songs? Go play Ys; that was the first set. Were they with the exception of the unaccompanied harp and vocals of Sawdust & Diamonds stripped down slightly compared to the album versions? Does it matter? Some random cherishable moments: the occasions when Ms Newsoms vocals broke out of their kooky Kate Bush/Tori Amos/Björk/Lisa Simpson chrysalis to soar operatically; so unexpected, like suddenly hearing a peal of church bells, and gone again just as swiftly; the barefooted percussionist disassembling his rudimentary kit mid-song, or tucking his beaters underarm whilst doubling on backing vocals. Radiant, breathtaking, daring look, Ill get to a proper description of the music when I review Ys a few issues hence (such is the depth of the backlog around here, unfortunately). I kept being reminded of an interview with XTCs gentleman psychedelicists Andy Partridge I read pushing two decades ago, in which he longed for some entirely new form of sweeping musical movement, something along the lines of gangs of 16 year old girls with cellos. Well, its taken a while, but would you settle for a 24 year old harpist? And another thing: remember that old chestnut regularly levelled at bands, rappers, DJs or in fact anybody whose music strays outside the safe confines of guitar, bass and drum, about how theyd never be able to recreate it live. Well, Ys, with its prog complexity and elaborate orchestrations, there it was, unfolding in real time before my own eyes and ears. Alright, I appreciate its not exactly Mahler, but even so, I was gently amused to overhear another spectator comment that Its not the most complex harp playing in the world, but to do that and sing at the same time . Whatevers going on onstage, for all the dozens of musicians contributing to the glorious ruckus, its Ms Newsom whos at the centre of it holding it all together; its the lady with the harp that you wont be able to rip your admiring, fascinated gaze away from.
We were favoured with a briefer, unorchestrated second set of littler songs: Bridges And Balloons, Sadie and Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie from her luminous debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender, something she referred to as a Scottish folk song and one new song, elaborate and dense but without the reach and grasp of Ys. But thats alright isnt it? We can hardly condemn the lady if every song she writes henceforth isnt a 16 minute orchestral epic. Finally, theres an encore of two more Milk-Eyed Mender songs, The Book Of Right-On and Peach, Plum, Pear, and what do you know but theyre lovely too, storms of applause bringing an intense, magical evening to a close. No Orange song, though. Would Kate have let down her fans like that?
JOANNA NEWSOM Ys (Drag City)
Where to begin? Well, I find it impossible to write about this album with any degree of impartiality. Ive been awestruck by it for nearly six months now, and felt more than privileged to witness it performed complete and in sequence when Ms Newsome brought the Northern Sinfonia to Manchesters Bridgewater Hall in January.
Ys, named after the mythical Brittany city, is a triumph of artistic instinct over cold, calculating logic. Why shouldnt it work? Lets count the ways. It consists of just five songs, even the shortest of which the seven minute Cosmia is hardly precision-tooled to sound impressive scrabbling for airspace on daytime radio, although it found a sympathetic home on an Uncut cover disc. Save for one song the divine Sawdust & Diamonds the album wears orchestral arrangements cut by Brian Wilsons Smile collaborator and original Americana maverick Van Dyke Parks. Steve Albini, the Bad Brains/Rapeman/Shellac guitarist known for his straight-edged brutalising recording engineer role on albums by, among hundreds of others, The Auteurs, Nirvana, the Pixies and The Wedding Present, taped Ms Newsoms performances, and sometime Sonic Youth and Wilco adventurer Jim ORourke handled the mixing. On paper Ys is an Odd Couple/Big Brother-style sonic carcrash just waiting to happen.
Instead, though, its utterly entrancing and completely absorbing. You could throw any number of influences at it, ranging from Björk to The Incredible String Band, but Ys never sounds like anything other than itself even Newsoms charming 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender is scant preparation for its ever-unfolding wonders. It seems like a crime to attempt to dissect this music: it needs to lap at, enfold and roll over the listener. The traditional verse-chorus-verse structure of popular song has been abandoned in favour of something far more symphonic and impressionistic. These are big songs that paint on correspondingly broad canvases; Ys is a sweeping, ambitious and challenging album, not unlike, if hardly like, Foxtrot or Close To The Edge.
Monkey & Bear briefly references Somewhere from West Side Story, its tale of the titular characters escape from captivity carrying Orwellian overtones. The aforementioned Sawdust & Diamonds hardly misses the extra musicians: Newsom hides a whole orchestra in her harp strings, conjuring from them an endless fascination of morphing melodies. The 17 minutes of Only Skin perhaps find the album at its most ambitious, yet even here any accusations of pretentiousness are punctured by Ms Newsoms opening squeak. I have no idea what its about a meditation on the implausibility, fragility and redemption offered by love, perhaps? but even though the lyrics make little narrative sense to the outsider they can still be enjoyed as a catalogue of breathtaking images. (And how often do you hear the word inchoate used in a pop song?) Coruscating seems the most apt adjective to describe her shimmering, nimble harp playing on Cosmia, which briefly mutates into a whirling dervish mid-section that sounds like some kind of traditional folk dance. Again, the lyrics are elusive (or at least heavily allusive), but when did you last hear the word lissome in a pop song?
It seems almost incidental to mention that, physically, Ys is a wonder to behold. The vinyl edition arrives in a gatefold sleeve with ten pages of exquisitely illustrated lyrics, and its pressed as a double album with only one or two tracks per side for increased fi. Whatever form you encounter it in, Ys will be a love/hate thing, possibly as divisive an album as Trout Mask Replica. Some people will clock the track lengths, hear Newsoms ecstatic squeaking and look away immediately. If, however, you relish challenge and invention in your music, I cant recommend this wonderful work highly enough.
JOANNA NEWSOM / ROY HARPER Palace Theatre, Manchester 18 September 2010
Grey-haired and bearded, Roy Harper has the manic demeanour of a slightly scary grandfather, seemingly having the ability to fix the entire audience with his stare. His solo acoustic set is rapturously received, his voice sounding burnished with the patina of age compared with his younger, recorded self. I hadn’t realised how much of a religious undercurrent flows through Roy’s songs, but it’s more than apparent tonight, underlined with comments about the “violent extremist…dressed in white” currently touring the country. He peaks with the closing “Me And My Woman”, a song he describes as being about “the human condition” and one that, dated title aside, seems no less relevant now than it must have been nearly 40 years ago.
The last Joanna Newsom gig I attended saw her play the magnificent “Ys” album in its entirety, accompanied by her band and the Northern Symphonia. Tonight her songs are represented in “reduced arrangements”, orchestrated for guitar, violins, trombone, piano, harp and percussion. The setlist is drawn predominately from this year’s very fine triple album “Have One On Me”, highlights being “Good Intentions Paving Co.”, blessed with probably the first, and definitely the finest, trombone solo I’ve heard at a concert, and the luminous wonder of “In California”, during which Neal Morgan’s evening-long attempts to redefine percussion as a lead instrument reached their apotheosis. The songs Newsom leads from the piano almost posit her as Tori Amos’ kookier niece, although there’s far more scope and exquisite meandering to her compositions than Amos’, but it’s when she plays her signature instrument, the harp, that the evening really flutters , especially during the solo tour-de-force “Cosmia”, the sole “Ys” tune aired tonight.
There are moments of polite tension. Drummer Neal attempts to break up the awkward silence of a mid-gig harp retuning by revealing various almost certainly fictional Roy Harper facts before the man himself sneaks in from the wings, tweaks a harp string and vanishes again. Similarly, a gentle admonishing of the photographers in the audience culminates in the band posing for a 20 second photo opportunity.
Mostly, though, it’s a fantastic, treasurable evening. If it lags slightly behind the standard she’s set herself it’s only because that orchestral “Ys” performance was one of the most astonishing concerts I’ve ever had the good fortune to be present at, and second place to such a night still leaves the potential for genius wide open.
JOANNA NEWSOM Have One On Me (Drag City)
Following the overflowing orchestrations of the wondrous “Ys”, Joanna Newsom’s third record might be considered her pop album. Let’s at least consider the obvious criticisms first. At three discs (irrespective of the circular format of purchase, even though it could comfortably be accommodated on two CDs), 18 songs and two hours, “Have One On Me” could be seen as indulgent even by Ms Newsom’s own profligate standards. The counterargument is that, well, a lot of those 18 songs are great. Inevitably some are better than others, and few listeners wouldn’t be able to pare down the whole into a more satisfying album by sacrificing a third or even a half of the material on display. Whether we would all agree on which half or third should go is another can of cherries altogether.
“Have One On Me” is a different kind of record to “Ys”, in places dramatically so. Mostly recorded with the kind of small group ensemble she’s recently toured with, rather than the orchestra of “Ys”, on some songs Newsom abandons her signature harp entirely, playing piano in a style that inevitably firms up previous Tori Amos comparisons. This complex, ever-changing kaleidoscope of riches is almost overstuffed with images, overlaying her traditional eccentricities with a singer-songwriterly Laurel Canyon feel. Her voice has matured as well, partly through illness apparently, almost entirely shedding the occasional Olive Oyl squeaks that might have made her previous work something of a trial for the less dedicated listener.
Long, complex, percussive and intricate pieces like the title track sit alongside fragrant, relatively simple (but emphatically not simplistic) harp and voice miniatures such as “’81”. The impish mischievousness of “Good Intentions Paving Co.” builds to an awesome clattering climax via wry lyrical pearls such as “I said to you “Honey, just open your heart”/When I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar”. “Go Long”, which sounds like another solo harp piece, is, if the credits are to be believed, actually a complex filigree interweaving of acoustic guitar, Bulgarian tambura, banjo, kora and a triumvirate of harps. Perhaps it’s entirely coincidental, but what is debatably the album’s finest moment, “In California”, is also Newsom’s most commercial nine minutes to date. It’s reprised by “Does Not Suffice”, a post-relationship emotional stocktaking exercise that’s as emptied out musically as it is lyrically, yet remains a wonderful, thoughtful piece.
Around such excellence, though, the perfectly tessellating melody of “No Provenance”, lovely on its own terms, kinda slinks into the background. Some songs, “Esme” for example, even seem to plod a bit, almost as if their limited melodic interest squanders the vast yet finely gradated timbral palate from which they’re painted.
The packaging is appropriately lush, the records arriving in a big box with a lyric booklet and a happy acreage of lovely photos. It sounds great, too, a near-holographic experience in places, at least on the tracks on which the vinyl hasn’t been sabotaged by what on my copy looks to be a frenzied scissor attack.
In all its rambling excess, “Have One On Me” is a remarkable achievement. Maybe “Ys” is ultimately still the better album, but that’s like saying “Abbey Road” is better than “The Beatles”; it’s the sheer throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks daring, so rarely encountered in modern music, that makes “Have One On Me” what it is, something rare and precious, even in its creator’s exquisitely bejewelled discography.