Return of the Chipmunk

Harpist Joanna Newsom: strange, hypnotic, dark, bizarre and absolutelygodawful

In his column in last month's Spin, Dave Eggers waxed hyperbolic about San Francisco harpist Joanna Newsom. She was haunting, sad, lovely, precious, dark, bizarre, brilliant.

I happen to be a fan of Eggers--his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a masterpiece of a self-indulgent, hemorrhaging prose--so I eagerly anticipated this Joanna Newsom. A harpist! How strange, how hypnotic.

A week or so later, our San Francisco sister paper deemed Newsom the most crush-worthy female in the Bay Area. "Having a crush on Joanna Newsom is like having a crush on your own lost sense of childish wonder." A woman who can make rock critics connect with their own sense of childish wonder? She's not a musician; she's a freaking magician.

I was out of town a few weeks ago when Newsom played the Gypsy Tea Room with Devendra Banhart. Thing about turning 30: Every weekend brings another freaking wedding. But enough of this silly prelude--last week, I finally put on her CD, The Milk-Eyed Mender.

"This is the worst fucking thing I've ever heard," said a colleague--we'll call him Bobert Wilonsky--as he passed by my office. Over a plonking harp, a nasal woman trilled on about balloons and sailing.

"You know who she sounds like?" I asked Bobert.

"Uh, Tiny Tim?"

"No, Carol Channing!"

Another former music editor, "Crac Zain," walked by. "Hey, listen to this," we said, like two kids offering sour milk to a sibling. "The hipsters love her."

He listened for about five bars. "It's fucking terrible," he said and went on his way.

Afterward, I closed the door and listened to the album alone. Was it really bad? Or were we being knee-jerk, facile, cranky critics full of impatience and bile? After all, some of my favorite musicians have untraditional voices--John Darnielle, Conor Oberst, Jeff Tweedy. The first time I heard Tom Waits, I thought a kitten was drowning. But after three tracks, I couldn't find anything to like in Joanna Newsom besides the CD packaging. It was faux-embroidery, kind of cute and quirky.

The editorial assistant walked in. "What is this?" she asked, scrunching her nose. "A chipmunk?"

I've been the music editor here for six months, and it never fails to surprise me what critics herald as great music. The Liars? Unlistenable. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Performance art--heavy on performance, light on the art. Doesn't mean they're wrong; we're just looking for different things from our music. Some music listeners grab at new sounds like drug addicts craving the next, better high. A woman with a harp and a helium voice may be for them what black heroin was for Robert Downey Jr. Me, I'm a beer drinker. I like a classic, crisp pilsner. I'll take The Bends over Kid A any day. I'll take Fountains of Wayne, the Shins, the Flaming Lips, the Decemberists, the Hives (whose new album, Tyrannosaurus Hives, is reviewed on page 77), Wilco. Not crazy about that A Ghost Is Born, though. Jeff Tweedy's vocals are tamped down, missing that unmistakable ache that made his songs so poignant. And 11 minutes of white noise? "Even I find it kind of annoying," Tweedy told The New York Times. Jesus, does he hate himself that much?

This week, my two music writer colleagues and I gathered to talk about the latest from the Old 97's (see "Golden Oldies" on page 71). Not surprisingly, we don't agree. This is a fairly common occurrence around the office, which usually takes place in the following way:

"What do you think of My Morning Jacket?" someone might ask me. To which I'll reply, "Eh. Overrated."

Which is when I'll hear the familiar voice of a colleague drifting over the cubicles: "They're way too awesome for her."

Usually, the spats are friendly. Fun. (Although once, a fellow editor in Denver did threaten to kick me in the neck for liking the Darkness.) After six months here, that's how I see my job--not telling you what to listen to, what not to listen to. I assume you're an adult with a brain and your own arsenal of opinions. Instead, I'd rather spark a discussion, a debate, like a spirited cocktail conversation. After all, despite all pretenses to the contrary, we don't actually know everything (although we know most things, and if you don't agree, I will kick you in the neck).

 
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