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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Joanna Newsom: "Have One On Me"

There should be no debate, frankly, about whether or not Joanna Newsom's latest album, Have One On Me, is too much music.  At over two hours in length, the answer is a resounding "YES!"  But we will not ask if it is too much music, simply, "Is it any good?"  The answer to this question is the same, though perhaps less emphatic as the prior response.  Trying to review such a monstrous album is a monumental task that I can't help but feel overwhelmed each time I sit down to write.  To ease my suffering, my review of this album will be done in 3 parts, at the end of which an overall score will be assigned.

--Disc 1--
Have One On Me begins with the piano-led "Easy," a song that sets the tone of the album.  It's intrumentally-lush, but upbeat, poppy feel is indicative of the experience most listeners will have with this album.  Far from the lengthy, harp-driven tales of 2006's Ys (her only album with which I am familiar), Have One On Me is much more easily digested, albeit in small, 45-minute doses.  "Easy" is a pop song in the loosest interpretation of the genre; but as is the case with most of Newsom's music, it remains categorically undefinable.  The album's title track, at over 11-minutes, is its longest song.  It flows effortlessly between sparse instrumentation, country-westernish flourishes, and surprisingly exuberant orchestral sections.  The song's composition is truly dense, and I've found myself battling between listening to the instrumentation and Newsom's voice often.

On that note, Newsom's voice seems much more polished in this release than on her past works.  It is still an "acquired taste," so to speak, but the moments where it cracks or seem strained are far fewer this time around.  There is, for example, a moment on "Have One On Me," towards the end, where she harmonizes with herself with full vibrato, and it sounds quite lovely; even by her standards.  "'81" finds Newsom playing alone with her harp for a change, it is is just as beautiful as it has ever been.  The lack of extra instrumentation let's us focus on Joanna's voice and her instrument of choice, which has always been my favorite aspect of her music.  She spends a surprisingly large time on Have One On Me playing piano, which I'm not the biggest fan of, truthfully.  Newsom is talented on the piano, for sure, but she's no Tori Amos or even Fiona Apple.  A lot of the songs that prominently feature the piano sound emptier than they should, and the "tickling of the ivories" is mostly downgraded to heavy-handed, simple chord progressions.

"Good Intentions Paving Company" is okay in this regard, but it fails in being a solid pop song a) because it's too long, and b) because the vibrato (real or faux) is entirely overdone.  The chorus sounds a lot a Little Shop of Horrors song, but Newsom doesn't really have the same vocal strongpoints as, say, Ellen Greene.  "No Provenance" is a much more subdued affair and is all the more gorgeous because of this.  Truthfullyt, I'm drawn to it because it sounds like it could have been on Ys; not only because of its length, but because of its style and storytelling.  If you're a fan of that album, this might not be a bad place to start.

The first disc closes with "Baby Birch," a solemn, touching hymn that is not hampered by its 9-minute length, but lifted.  It's a good 3 1/2 minutes before the opening progression even changes, but Newsom's delicate vocals remain constant throughout.  The last 3 minutes of the song add in percussion that is jarring, but powerful.  It is so joyous and celebratory, that one can't help but enjoy what they are hearing.  It is easily the disc's finest track.

--Disc 2--
Disc Two of Have One On Me begins with the simple (and short), "On a Good Day."  Joanna's voice is fully exposed here, singing a solid melody over subtle harp plucks.  Despite its brevity, it's a strong song, and one that's certainly easy to listen to.  It resembles Blue-era Joni Mitchell in its simplistic, but artful approach to songwriting.  On "You and Me, Bess," Newsom is joined by various brass instrumentation, and a guest vocalist who harmonizes with her beautifully.  The song is quaint, almost whimsical; and if there were any song on Have One On Me that perfectly captures the bizarre charm of Joanna Newsom, this may be the be the one!  The chorus, strangely, is relegated to "La la las," but the song is no less enjoyable for it.

"In California" is a mostly-dreadful song.  Newsom's vocal melody is okay at best, and things don't get remotely interesting until around the 4-minute mark, and then again a few minutes later with some really cool orchestration.  But for the most part, the song's only strong point are its lyrics (minus the "cawing"), which can be said for almost any of her songs. "Jackrabbit" is a very restrained tune, but its simplicity is not only acceptable, but necessary after the previous two tracks.  It's a good song, but it's nothing particularly special.

Joanna is an undeniably talented harpist, and no song on Have One On Me showcases her talent in this regard better than "Go Long." Her playing is dreamlike, surrounding the listener in plucks that seemingly fly in from all directions.  It is joined by one of the album's more lovely melodies; solemn, but truly beautiful.  It is a song that you'll want to listen to over and over again.  "Occident" ditches the harp, which I've already stated I'm not the biggest fan of.  However, I'm truly mesmerized by the chord progression of the song.  It seems like such a simple thing, but the construction of "Occident" is virtually flawless.  It's a comedown track, for sure, and if Disc Two were an album in and of itself, I would think it a satisfying conclusion to a fairly solid album.

--Disc 3--
Now that you've made it through 2 whole CDs of Joanna Newsom, you should be ready to tackle Disc 3, where the average song length is around 7 minutes.  "Soft as Chalk" is a pretty upbeat song in tempo, featuring Newsom doing some flat-out awesome things vocally ("Lawlessness!!").  Every movement of the song is interesting in its own way; and though seemingly discordant, Newsom's charming voice ties them all together nicely.  It's a "fun" song, which sadly isn't an adjective I would use often when describing her music.  "Esme" is the opposite.  Classic Newsom, it is gorgeous and simple, with story-like lyrics that are worth reading along with.  There's nothing really surprising or new about this song, but long-time fans should enjoy it well enough.

The sparse instrumentation continues on "Autumn," but not for long.  By the time the strings, percussion, and brass come in, you'll be pleasantly surprised.  They are subdued, however.  Not too overpowering, but complementing Joanna's harp and voice nicely.  The harp is the focal point of "Ribbon Bows," flowing gracefully throughout the length of the song.  It's songs like this that remind us of why we started listening to Newsom in the first place.  As much as I loved the grandeur of Ys, the major appeal of Joanna's music has always been the subtler, understated moments where one can really get a grasp on her songwriting talents.  "Ribbon Bows" is perfect in that regard, and it's one of the disc's finest tracks.

Have One On Me concludes with "Kingfisher" - a beautiful, perhaps mournful track - and "Does Not Suffice" - a soulful blues song, that serves as a nice ending to this monstrous album.  After listening through this album multiple times at this point (seriously...maybe 8-10 hours worth), the best piece of advice I could give to someone just going into it is this: take it slow.  My first listen to Have One On Me involved me trying to go through all 18 tracks (and 2 hours) in one shot.  I ended up getting frustrated and turning the thing off.  But don't make the mistake of thinking that this makes Have One On Me a bad album.  If anything, it is a collection of 3 really good albums that need to be digested individually.  There is a great wealth of music here that the average person can't appreciate when it's all thrown at them at once.  Take your time, sift through each disc, find the songs you like and then move on.  With the exception of "Good Intentions Paving Company," which I just abhor, there's really not a bad song on this album; which is impressive when you consider how many songs are on here and how many things could have gone wrong.  Newsom had proven her talent long before Have One On Me released, but putting out 3 really good albums at once, well, that pretty much seals the deal!  If you're a Newsom fan, you'd be stupid not to buy a copy.  And that's where I'll end this long, rambling review.

Key Tracks:
1. "Have One On Me"
2. "On a Good Day"
3. "You and Me, Bess"
4. "Go Long"
5. "Soft as Chalk"

Disc 1:  7 out of 10 Stars
Disc 2:  8 out of 10 Stars
Disc 3:  8 out of 10 Stars

Overall:  8 out of 10 Stars

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