Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Joanna Newsom

  • The Milk-Eyed Mender [Drag City, 2004] A-
  • Ys [Drag City, 2006] C+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Milk-Eyed Mender [Drag City, 2004]
Not only does she sing in a fey little voice and fingerpick a damn harp, she hangs out with the wrong crowd--hippie folkies, basically. So snub her on principle if you like, but note this quatrain (yes, quatrain): "And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers/and we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at words/while across the sky sheet the impossible birds/in a steady illiterate movement homewards." Sorry, folks, that's s-m-a-r-t whether you like its drift or not, and there's plenty more where it came from. Right, she's chronically whimsical--the final song adduces dragons. But her whimsy is genuinely funny, and though the melodies fade on the second half, which damages the poetry, there at the end of the faintest one comes the wise warning: "Never get so attached to a poem/you forget truth that lacks lyricism." So I won't. A-

Ys [Drag City, 2006]
Original is one thing, worth doing another--and if only indie ideologues knew the difference. So much that is sprightly about the debut is subsumed here by ambition, to be kind, and privilege, to be brutally accurate. The through-composition does gain melodic grace over time but would mean little without the ministrations of Van Dyke Parks, whose fancy stuff requires simpler tunes than Newsom wishes to provide. And the libretto--ach Gott! Supposedly inspired by milestones in Newsom's life, these whimsical pastoral allegories reveal only that her taste for the antique is out of control. All those who gave this a rave should proceed directly to Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene or John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The new Arcade Fire will only waste their time. C+