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MUSIC REVIEW: April CDs

CDS WE LOVE...in which we cozy up to and share music that has struck our eardrums.
(The streams below will be available until early May, when a new batch will appear.)

Joanna Newsom: HAVE ONE ON ME

Joanna Newsom: Have One On MeIs it an exaggeration to say that the feelings I carry for Joanna Newsom, the young harpist/singer/songwriter, are cult-like? A recent profile in the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE (by Jody Rosen) contends that for "members of her cult, Newsom inspires the kind of exegetical fervor that Bob Dylan did in 1966."

I guess I would have to argue that, no, it isn't quite an exaggeration: I can spend a day replaying any of her three CDs and not only not be bored, but I will swear I am picking up new meanings and new sounds that swept by me in earlier listenings. And, yeah, Bob Dylan can have the same effect on me.

People whose music taste I trust have called Newsom's voice "whiny," "precious," "fake," "annoyingly child-like," etc. And I get that. Just as I understand why some people think Bob Dylan's voice can sound like the braying of a sore-throated mule. Because it sort of does. (Lindsey Millar of the ARKANSAS TIMES, had this to say about Dylan's last concert in Arkansas:

"By the third song, he was mumbling and speak-singing, still phlegmatically, but in a way that wasn't defined by hacking and almost sounded sonorous compared to the openers."

I was there too and I can agree with Lindsey. And yet....)

But, for me, these limitations, if that's what they are, are merely jumping-off points, or reference points, for both artists; on one level, what Dylan's and Newsom's voices "sound like" is not the end-all and be-all for them; it's the tool they use to get where they want to go.

But I do get the criticisms, I promise. When I first started listening to Newsom and started liking her (I started with her second album, YS, which was divinely orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks), I had to question my enjoyment. Should I really be digging somebody who sounds like a Victorian-era nature girl? Hell, for all I knew, Newsom was making fun of pretentious music-listeners (like...me) who thought they should like a Victorian-era nature girl. True, her singing always sounded sincere...but was that enough?

Needing more clues back then, I YouTube'd her. By YouTube standards, there was little footage, but I did get a peek into the "real" Newsom. In the clip below, she comes across, off-stage, as frighteningly awkward, self-conscious, and hippy-dippy:

It's not enough, you'll notice, that her favorite animal is the "sea horse." She, being a true California hippy, has to add, "But I don't think I'd want to be a sea horse because they look so sad."

Sad sea horses!

Okay, yes, Newsom is precious. But, by God, there's an unbridgeable gap between fake precious and real precious.

Like Dylan fanatics, some Newsomites obsess over changes in her life. We notice that the once shy, clumsy-seeming girl in the sex-less hippy frocks, is being presented to the world as a doll, a babe. The visuals included with her new CD show Newsom eschewing the old hippy look for sexy heels, come-hither poses, and what I think is lingerie.

YouTube her today and you'll learn that she now has favorite designers and is coy, not scared, in front of a camera:

Just like Dylan fanatics seem to want to take possession of Bob Dylan, and make him their own private Idaho, some Newsomites worry that we are losing Joanna to the big, bad world of glitz and commerce.

But I can calm down and tell myself it's all right. Why? Because none of that stuff matters. What matters is that the music and singing on her new CD, HAVE ONE ON ME, prove that Joanna Newsom is still worth every ounce of my attention.

For the last three weeks, I have been absorbing as much of HAVE ONE ON ME that I can. Three CDs make up HAVE ONE ON ME, but I haven't moved past disc one, because the totality of its significance still eludes me.

All I can say, then, is that disc one of HAVE ONE ON ME so far comes across as a collection of warm, open-hearted songs, whose layered, pop-symphonic arrangement is bright and uncluttered. Jo's voice sounds as good (or off-putting) as ever and she seems, at times, to be channeling two other California-based divines, Joni Mitchell and Linda Perhacs.

If you haven't heard Newsom before and think, after one listen to the song below ("Easy" the first song from disc one of HAVE ONE ON ME), that you should give up on her, I would advise that you give her another chance. At first, I didn't like "Easy." But, luckily, I didn't give up, and now "EASY" holds to me in the magical way pollen holds to a bee's knees.

Of course, unlike Joanna, I don't even know if bees have knees.

—MARC SMIRNOFF

 


 

Toro y Moi: CAUSERS OF THIS

Causers of This by Toro y MoiThey call it "chillwave": Intricately layered samples, overproduction that sounds like being submerged in a sunkissed pool, and breathy falsettos intentionally reminiscent of '80s Top 40. South Carolina's Toro y Moi heads this movement, wherein kids with laptops are the architects of pop pleasantries. Tracks like "Imprint After" sound as sugary as Phil Collins reimagined by the postmodern set. The heavy keys and call-and-response vocals on "Low Shoulders" recall '90s r&b-influenced dance-pop but with a new subtlety. Never mind the puffily titled subgenre; understand that Toro y Moi's pop represents the kids who grew up in a decade when the U.S. was rich and hopeful, and they've now finished art school, can't find jobs, and are striving to evoke the sounds of a more optimistic time. —NE (Carpark, 2010)

Hear This! "Blessa" by Toro y Moi

 


 

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River: TRUE LOVE CAST OUT ALL EVIL

True Love Cast Out All Evil by Roky Erickson and Okkervil RiverLikely you already know the Ballad of Roky Erickson, so let's not rehash the tragic past. What calls for celebration is his beleaguered and long-overdue resurfacing, with beloved Austin compatriots Okkervil River championing his return. Selected from his incarceration-to-present repertoire, many of the songs addressing Erickson's past are put forth with harrowing emotion. "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" and "Please, Judge," in particular, will haunt the listener for quite some time. The album captures the dual effect of being both an homage and a catharsis—a sparse, timeless quality similar to Rick Rubin's Johnny Cash recordings. That is to say, while there's less sentimental rejoicing here than you might expect, Erickson's understood darkness pervades, but now in a touching, world-weary way. —NE (ANTI-, 2010)

Hear This! "Think Of As One" by Roky Erickson with Okkervil River

 


 

Harlem: HIPPIES

Harlem "Hippies"A follow-up to FREE DRUGS, Harlem's new release, HIPPIES, has all the euphoric, hang-loose pop you'd expect, but with a punky, piss-and-vinegar grit that turns the music's dopey grin into a broken-toothed snarl. In fact, the opener "Someday Soon" is a "Norwegian Wood" revenge fantasy about a spurned lover refusing his enflamed ex's plaintive cries for water. With song titles like "Spray Paint," "Gay Human Bones," and "Three Legged-Dog," the album shakes and rattles like the haunted storage-space where they were likely written. The treble crashes, grainy harmonies, and punch-drunk piano fills on "Tila & I" characterize the band's speedball cocktail of lo-fi power-pop. —BS (Matador, 2010)


Hear This! "Tila & I" by Harlem

 


 

Dr. Dog: SHAME, SHAME

Dr. Dog "Shame, Shame"For their first professional-studio—albeit sixth full-length—record, SHAME, SHAME, Dr. Dog maintains their sugar-spun melody-making while refining their pop production, belying Toby Leaman's pronouncement on "Stranger" that "There's no more tricks up my sleeve." That same road-weary tone runs throughout the songs "Shadow People," "Station," "Unbearable Why," and "Shame, Shame," whose twee tonic makes the existential pills of heartache and alienation easier to swallow. In "Jackie Wants a Black Eye," the guitar strings fan out like sunrays, the harmonies defrost blue notes, the drums infuse life into recycled emotions, and salve impalpable wounds. Though Dr. Dog has been there and done that, their latest triumph suggests they're just getting started —BS (ANTI-, 2010)

Hear This! "Jackie Wants a Black Eye" by Dr. Dog

 


 

Hacienda: BIG RED & BARBACOA

Hacienda "Big Red and Barbacoa"With Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys helming the production, San Antonio family band Hacienda makes waves with their Gulf Coast brand of surfy garage-rock on BIG RED & BARBACOA. The sunny harmonies and insouciant, loping melodies of "I Keep Waiting" and "Hound Dog" draw comparisons to The Beach Boys.  "As You Like It" and "Got to Get Back Home" are reminiscent of ye olde Chicano-rockers the likes of Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs and The Sir Douglas Quintet. And "Big Red" and "Barbacoa," the instrumental bookends, sizzle like READY STEADY GO! dance-off hits. Despite a decidedly vintage flair, the band is no mere reprisal of their influences; as their testosterone-fueled cover of the Everly Brothers' "You're My Girl," shows, they are a shape-shifting klatch of fresh talent —BS (Alive, 2010)

Hear This! "You're My Girl" by Hacienda

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