Indie thrush Joanna Newsom's faerie dust doesn't work on everyone

153455__joanna_lNow it is time to discuss the sylph-like harpist that is Joanna Newsom. Ms. Newsom’s 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender was the sort of album that elicited rapturous responses from twee indie boys nationwide, causing anyone with a predilection towards preciousness to drool all over their Belle and Sebastian t-shirts with praise. For example, Dave Eggers in Spin: "This music makes my heart feel stout, and enables me, with my eyes, to breathe fire." Or Ben Gibbard on NPR’s website: "I have fallen in love with her music so deeply over the last three months that I can barely listen to her without being moved to tears."

Now, I like Dave Eggers and Ben Gibbard. They’re good guys, both of whom at one time or another have made my heart feel stout and/or moved me to tears. I should have known better, though, because I bought Milk-Eyed Mender, listened to it twice, and then walked out and tossed it in the river, because I thought that would be a nice place for it to go to die. Like, maybe the album wanted me to toss it in the river, in an Ophelia sort of way. That’s what I got out of it, anyway: "Please, let me just go lie down in a river and die, somehow, without mussing my hair. Do you want the rest of my muffin?"

Newsom is back with a new album, Ys, which I heard a teensy bit of yesterday while hanging out in the office of my new best friend, EW senior editor Rob Brunner. It took me a minute to realize what we were listening to — at first I thought it was a hidden track off the Brigadoon soundtrack — but then I realized only one young lady possesses that specific combo of squeaky voice, antiquated tone, and ability to make my right eye twitch.  The new album, as far as I can tell, is less "Throw me in the river" and more "Would you like to go to the ren fair?", but it is no more up my alley than its predecessor. I give up. I cannot stand this music.

What say you, PopWatchers? Am I not being fair to the faerie? Or amI correct in saying that Joanna Newsom is basically Tori Amos for boys?To educate yourself, please read this Q&A (congrats, Pitchfork, on even making the Q&As pretentious!), watch this video, and listen to this track. Then come back and help me figure out why otherwise reasonable human beings find listening to this stuff pleasurable.

(NOTE: The answer, "Because despite being twee indie boys, theystill feel the testosterone-driven need to care for and protectsomething, preferably female and smaller than them, and Newsom soundslike a perfect candidate" is completely acceptable, but I’ve alreadythought of it.)


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  • chasgoose

    I think the better parallel for Joanna Newsom (particularly with Ys) is probably Kate Bush or Bjork. You either love them or you can’t stand them (Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights music video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqV65Vw7U9Q, for example is just as polarizing as Newsom’s stuff). I personally like all of them, but I completely understand the hate. The things I like about Joanna Newsom (her committment to pretension, her squeaky voice, her rambly poetic songs, her harp, etc.) should be completely off-putting, and they usually are in most contexts, but there is something I can’t shake about her music. I can’t stop myself from listening to them. Also, you should give her a chance live. In a concert setting a lot of the things that grate about her seem to be toned down. The current show she is touring around the country is one of the best concerts I have seen in awhile.

  • chasgoose

    I think the better parallel for Joanna Newsom (particularly with Ys) is probably Kate Bush or Bjork. You either love them or you can’t stand them (Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights music video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqV65Vw7U9Q, for example is just as polarizing as Newsom’s stuff). I personally like all of them, but I completely understand the hate. The things I like about Joanna Newsom (her committment to pretension, her squeaky voice, her rambly poetic songs, her harp, etc.) should be completely off-putting, and they usually are in most contexts, but there is something I can’t shake about her music. I can’t stop myself from listening to them. Also, you should give her a chance live. In a concert setting a lot of the things that grate about her seem to be toned down. The current show she is touring around the country is one of the best concerts I have seen in awhile.

  • LuLu

    I agree with Whitney. I do not like this artist. I felt like I was supposed to, kept trying to give the music a chance, but threw up my hands and gave up!

  • Erin

    Ugh! Love the harp, hate the voice. I remember listening to her first disc once and all my friend and I could do was laugh hysterically. It’s hard to take serious someone who sounds like Minnie Mouse on crack.

    • Gene Hackman

      How would you feel if you were born to sing and had that voice?

      • Marilou Henner

        She was born to sing like William Shatner was born to act well.

  • Jen O.

    Ugh. Thank you. I’d been reading/hearing about her everywhere, downloaded a couple of songs, and remembered instantly everything I loathe about the music hype machine. I hope she finds her Sir Loin of Beef in Shining Armor, and settles down at a quiet ren faire in a land without recording equipment.

  • Justin

    I really love Joanna Newsom, and there are lots of reasons for it. I don’t understand the predilection of cultural critics to deem something “pretensious” simply for it being different and not boring. I can see why some people wouldn’t like her music, but then I again I can’t see why someone would like B.S. like Nickelback or Akon. Maybe my finger isn’t on the pulse of America and I’m completely out of touch, but I, for the most part, like being challenged by the music I like or love.

    • Marilou Henner

      -wank, wank, wank, wank-

  • brandonk

    You listened to a whole CD of that? TWICE?!

  • marc

    It feels good to let it out. I DON’T GET HER! And I love ancient sounds in pop music: Dead Can Dance, Loreena McKennitt, Rasputina. But this is just a dull little girl who grew up wanting to be as creative as Kate Bush, but came off more like a creepy child actor in a Twin Peaks dream. I’m all for pushing boundaries but at the same time, just because it hasn’t been done (harp as pop with twee vocals) doesn’t mean it should.
    I respect others for liking her, but like her from your heart. What if your indie gods had dissed her? Would you still embrace her?

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree. I actually grew up with Joanna in Nevada City. Totally sweet girl. Had several classes with her. She’s undeniably talented, but she’s been doing the same thing with a harp since thrid grade. I think her new album is a vast improvement over her first, which succeeded at sounding more grating and rambling than the worst of Bjork, but even though the new stuff is a little more melodic, it’s still very renaissance fair. But don’t listen to me because I’m biased. Mainly because she has turned her back on her friends from home. It’s a shame. Side note: the back story of Sadie from her first album was about her dog Sadie who always crossed the street to the Jacobson farm to chase and eat their chickens. One day Dale Jacobson said if that dog comes to my farm one more time, I’ll shoot it. Guess what happened. Don’t feel bad for her. Dale is a cool guy. He was just deffending his livestock.

  • Jaime

    I love Joanna! The album is absolutely lovely to me, and I actually think she has a beautiful voice. She’s hardly twee, I might add. Twee is pure indie pop. This can hardly be called pop (although there is an exception: “Bridges and Balloons” is an absolutely beautiful, tear jerk of a pop melody. If you really can’t stand her voice, maybe try and get the Decemberists cover of it?). What’s wonderful about Ys is that it strays away from that sort of music, like it’s a prolonged lullaby. She’s never struck me as pretentious, unlike, say, Ben Gibbard or Pitchfork or even, on occasion, Dave Eggers.
    Yes, I cannot stand Ben Gibbard. I’ll take the beautiful, surreal lyrics of Joanna Newsom over emo-lite crap like “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” any day.

  • Mak

    I am a boy who I like to think does not possess a predilection towards twee, and I find Joanna Newsom okay in small doses. “The Sprout and the Bean” is a song that I enjoy because it seems evocative — maybe of my latent testosteronies (not a real word), but evocative nonetheless. Newsom’s shtick gets old pretty quickly though, and anyone who says she is underappreciated as if they’re bestowing their musical expertise upon us gets on my nerves especially.
    Her songs are deliberately cloying and ultimately shallow, though the irony of that is lost on the “Pitchfork” psuedo-snobs who lump her in with all of their other Important music. Although (heresy in T-minus 5…) I feel the same way about Karen O and she doesn’t play a harp.

  • Jaime

    Ah, yes, I found “Bridges and Balloons” in a last-ditch attempt to make you guys see the beauty in Newsom’s music. Come on, give it a listen! Here a blog post with both Joanna’s orginal version and the Decemberists’ cover version available for download. Check it out and tell me if you don’t like her just a LITTLE bit after you hear it–or, at the very least, if you like her a little bit when someone else is singing what she’s written.

    http://rewriteablecontent.blogspot.com/2006/11/joanna-newsom-brings-out-child.html

  • pnk

    I am a huge fan of Joanna Newsome, and I don’t think anyone would describe me as a “twee indie boy” (although I am a boy and will also cop to loving Built to Spill, another somewhat divisive indie band). I could go on at length about my appreciation for her, but I’ll spare you that. What I will say is this: she’s made music that has moved me very powerfully, has inspired me creatively, and, with her new album, challenged me to open my mind to a sound which I did not take to immediately (unlike Milk Eyed Mender, which I immediately dug). Those are gifts which many less controversial artists never have given me, and I’m grateful to her for them. All that said, my wife can’t stand her voice, and I certainly understand why. For me, it’s not an obstacle, nor is it one for my young kids: they love her!
    I can’t stand bananas, but I know lots of folks who swear by ‘em. To each his/her own.

    • Gene Hackman

      If you’re a “huge fan,” then spell her name correctly.

  • jaime

    ME MEITHER!! ME NEITHER!! AND I TRIED!! I has her first album on my iPod for like 3 months just to be cool. I thought I was the only one!

  • Josh

    Whitney – Thank you for one of the funniest posts I have read in a long time. Even if Joanna Newsome brings not tears to my eyes, you certainly did through laughter.

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