The Washington Times
Plucky newcomers fiddling with tradition
By Scott Galupo
January 26, 2007
Rock press hacks, glossy magazine list-compilers and newspaper critics such as, ahem, yours truly regularly declare themselves on the lookout for “women who rock” – a reductionist, and more than a little condescending, enterprise that defines proper rock stardom by an ability to thrash a guitar with masculine aggression and, a la Courtney Love, break through the glass ceiling of public debauchery.
But forget about the guitar and the gutter.
What a you-go-girls pleasure it was late last year to hear a pair of specialty albums that brought an exotically fusty aesthetic to indie rock and pop – which, all things considered, could stand a jolt of source material that extends back beyond, say, 1977.
Longtime readers may recall this reporter gawking at piano-and-voice performers such as Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, who props up a punk-rock posture with cabaret-era musical motifs that are older than her grandparents.
All we can say is, things are getting even further backdated, if not downright esoteric.
Joanna Newsom, a classically trained harpist from Northern California, dropped the inexorably eccentric “Ys” (pronounced “ease”), which must have utterly confounded buck-a-song cherry pickers: The album – a lush, languorous cycle of five very long songs that ignores every directive of popular music composition – may be purchased only in full online, with a guarantee to scramble IPod-regulated attention spans.
Miss Newsom, 24, plays the harp – that hulking stringed instrument one encounters in grand concert halls, Renaissance recitals or Irish bars – with baroque facility, but also with a distinctly modern attack. Her style is as much Appalachian as Elizabethan. And throughout, Miss Newsom sings deceptively antiquated lyrics (“When the blackbirds hear tea whistling, they rise and clap/And their applause caws the kettle black”) with nasally volatility, lurching into falsetto and then tumbling back into a natural soprano.
“Ys” attracted a formidable team of sonic craftsmen, including the producer-engineers Steve Albini (the Pixies, Nirvana) and Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth, Wilco); the veteran pop composer Van Dyke Parks oversaw its orchestral arrangements.
After a somewhat polarizing 2004 debut – “The Milk-Eyed Mender” drew raves from admirers such as novelist Dave Eggers, but perplexed first-time listeners such as the Stereogum.com reader who likened her unusual voice to “acid poured into the ears” – “Ys” has helped Miss Newsom secure a niche alongside neo-folk scenesters such as Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens.
Then there’s Elana James of Austin, Texas. After gigging to some acclaim with Western swing revivalists Hot Club of Cowtown, Miss James landed a dream slot playing violin in Bob Dylan’s touring band in spring 2005 and last summer. A flurry of songwriting soon followed. Her self-titled debut, rounded out with covers of Duke Ellington and her former boss (she nails “One More Night” from Mr. Dylan’s country-rock foray “Nashville Skyline”), dropped in September.
Miss James’ musical specialty is far more familiar to Americans – and infinitely more cheerful – than that of Miss Newsom. Not unlike fellow Texan Norah Jones, Miss James is fiercely traditional, and yet oozes an effortless contemporary charm.
Her bow work, sweet and nimble, references Western swing legend Bob Wills and jazz master Stephane Grappelli. But then she can purr like Nancy Sinatra: “You might be a cipher, and you might be a cad/But you’re the closest thing to love this heart has ever had.”
At this point, it might, indeed, be caddish to point out that both Miss Newsom and Miss James are rather fetching in the looks department.
A win-win, right?
Not for the likes of Mr. Eggers, who, in his Spin magazine column in praise of Miss Newsom, posited the possibility that audiences accept musical eccentricity from females only when it’s accompanied by a pretty face – that even indie connoisseurs are susceptible to the same kind of visual enticements that rule the pop world.
That Miss Newsom didn’t turn out to have a “face that could melt cheese” disappointed Mr. Eggers; it ruined his preferred mental image: “I picture her looking like Emily Dickinson. Newsom lives, I imagine, like a feral woman-child…. She’s painfully thin, and wears cracked glasses; she can’t get them fixed, and why? Because she spends all day singing like a crazy person, that’s why!”
The perennial “women who rock” sweepstakes mentioned above, then, might be code for “women who are hot.”
Maybe so, but one can’t accuse Miss Newsom of trading on looks: It’s hard to ogle someone hiding behind an instrument the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.