Posted by Brad @ 3:55 pm on November 23rd 2009

Music Video of the Week – Best Music of the Decade Edition

Screw you, I’m playing it.

Joanna Newsom – Sawdust and Diamonds

Joanna Newsom – Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes (Irish traditional)

Joanna Newsom – Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), Ys (2006)

Few musicians were as cleanly divisive to indie music snobs as Joanna Newsom. A large class of first-time listeners are just instantly, and emphatically, off-put, never to be approachable again. Another class fall under her spell from the first bar, enchanted forever. Both can be equally evangelical. At this point I don’t even try to bridge the chasm anymore; if the subject comes up, or I put on a song for a new listener and their faces scrunch up in visceral and immediate unease, I just acknowledge that it’s not to their taste and move on. I have an equal disinterest in hearing extended diatribes about her pretentiousness or insincerity as I do in haranguing someone about their inability to engage with the music long enough to unlock its charms, textures, or meanings.

Here is what I do know. The moment I heard her harp begin to percuss in “Bridges and Balloons”, my ear instinctively cocked, sensing something unlike anything I’d ever heard before. As the melody began to flow into her vocals, and her vocals into the lyrics, I was struck with a kind of mellow daze. It seemed both profoundly familiar and startlingly new, but as I sat and the disc wound through “The Book of Right-On”, “En Gallop”, all the way to “”Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie”, I think what struck me most was the singular thought that it had never occurred to me before that music could be like this.

Milk-Eyed Mender, with its almost car-crash blend of avante garde classicism, folk melody, and personal eccentricity, was (and remains) simply stunning, the very best in a year in which an entire musical family tree (“new folk”, if you like) seemed to bloom, a constellation that includes Sufjan Stevens, Antony and the Johnsons, Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart, and saw expression in more mainstream acts like Regina Spektor and the Decemberists (P.S. if you hated Newsom the first time around and want to try a new access route, I’d highly suggest Colin Meloy’s cover of “Bridges and Balloons”). Newsom exists both on the outskirts of that constellation and entirely separate from it, her own star system.

And if Milk-Eyed Mender remains approachable to fans of that brand for its roots charm, indie spirit, and accessible melodies, even if they had to adapt to her unconventional voice and dense, strange lyrics, her follow-up effort, Ys, went even further down the rabbit hole as she descended into storytelling that aped Lewis Carroll and ee cummings, and a musicality that owed itself more to baroque 17th century parlour music than the DIY harp of her first effort. The result was as unbelievably lush as it was flighty, as equally melancholic as it was fairy tale-ish, as much a dense textual exercise as it was a musical curiouoso, and as warm and personal as it was abstruse and archaic.

So here I’ll play to type and descend into evangelical. Joanna Newsom is—in voice, style, musicianship, and songwriting—as original a product as could be found this decade, a musical entity so far beyond post-modern that it circles back around again and becomes pre-. Her records are, both of them, so startling in their sheer denseness of experience that some people, upon exposure, can’t help but run and hide. But to those who fall under the spell, the experience is a decent analogue to the 00s decade itself. Marked by, if nothing else, fusion. A severe disinterest with genre, structure, convention, or popular taste, and instead a profoundly personal—and thus, by definition eccentric—yearning search for an experience marked by both nostalgia and novelty.


  1. Hey, there’s no reason to come off antagonistic. I don’t think there is anyone here that would begrudge you the opportunity to share your love for the sound of a live porpoise being devoured by wolves. I, for one, believe in tolerance when it comes to musical taste.

    Comment by James — 11/23/2009 @ 6:46 pm

  2. I was sold from the first minute when you posted Bridges and Balloons months back. Played it over and over. Still pull it up on youtube every now and then, along with a few other things you have posted, like Tom Waits’ Angels in Heaven and various Tribes Called Quest, and US3’s Cantaloupe. Good stuff.

    Comment by Jack — 11/23/2009 @ 9:16 pm

  3. Man. As lame as it sounds, I really appreciate that (also, great choices). :) Cheers.

    Comment by Brad — 11/23/2009 @ 11:35 pm

  4. /me thinks Jack must owe Brad money.

    Comment by James — 11/24/2009 @ 5:34 pm

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