Gail Brower Huggins Performance Center, Greensboro College
Saturday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m.
Sun City Girls' co-founder Sir Richard Bishop opens
"There are a thousand different ways to sound sinister," Joanna Newsom confides. She checked off many of them on her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender, which explored love, loss, inspiration and fidelity by way of ornate lyrics and shimmering harp arrangements. Newsom has a keen ear for surprising details, hallucinatory images and supple cadences, and The Milk-Eyed Mender was radiant with caravels and calm canaries, little wicker beetle shells, catenaries and dirigibles—and that was just on the first track, "Bridges and Balloons."
The album marked the young Californian as one of the 21st century's most polarizing musicians. Her work treads a thin line between the modernized folk of the Devendra Banhart variety and classical composition. It inspires rabid devotion on one end and bilious disdain on the other, with very little middle ground.
There are two reasons why Newsom's music is so divisive. The first is her unusual voice, which manages to simultaneously evoke Nina Simone and Lisa Simpson, rocketing from a throaty simper to a brassy caterwaul in the space of a few antique polysyllables. The second is her aesthetic bias toward whimsical anachronism. There's a distinct whiff of the Renaissance Faire hovering about her garb and her penchant for "thees" that seems to make hipsters feel uncomfortable whenever it becomes too pronounced.
But Newsom is accustomed to being out of step with modern trends. She studied composition at Mills College because many of her favorite composers had affiliations there, but the experience was not what she'd expected. "A lot of the ideas I was interested in were considered passé," she explains. "Most of the students were writing incredibly dissonant music on their laptop computers. It might have been smarter to go to a less experimental composition school where I would have gotten a more neo-classical education. But I went to this experimental school and became alienated, which in a way I'm grateful for, because that alienation drove me even further in the direction I'd felt embarrassed by previously—an obsession with melody, rather than a rejection of it."
Newsom's obsession with melody comes into full flower on her new album, Ys. Instead of concise, pop-structured songs, we get five epics—the shortest song on Ys surpasses seven minutes; the longest is nearly 17. Each song explores a specific event of great personal magnitude in Newsom's life, and she felt that the long form was not an indulgence but a necessity.
And while The Milk-Eyed Mender consisted mostly of unadorned harp and voice, Ys employs a full orchestra and string arrangements by legendary Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Most young musicians would be too intimidated by Parks to give him dictation, but Newsom saddled him with pages and pages of notes and requests for changes over the course of seven months. "Of course, the first draft he sent me was genius, and it would've been easy to fall in love with those parts," she says. "But the effort to bring those things closer to [my vision] took a long time."
But instead of lugging an orchestra on the road, Newsom has assembled a band to replicate Ys—a tambura player, an accordion player, a guitarist, a drummer and a glockenspiel player. Newsom characterizes reworking her ineffably weird chamber music with a band as "incredibly fun," and fans who feel that the orchestration on Ys is obtrusive should jump on this chance to hear its songs in a more intimate format.