Smog’n’Harp

Joanna Newsom and Smog at Indigo a couple of Tuesdays back was a cracker. I’d been listening to The Milk-Eyed Mender pretty heavily since a friend introduced me to it just a couple of weeks before the show was announced. (The name rang a bell at the time, I think Newsom was mentioned in a Robert Christgau best of 2004 thing on the Village Voice website). I kept being ready to lose patience with her cutesy coo-ey Bjorky/Kate Bush voice and start hating, but it just didn’t happen. And every time I listened to and this didn’t happen, I liked it more and more.

Bill Callahan’s stuff I’ve known for a while, and I’ve definitely got a soft spot for Knock Knock, and at least half of every other album of his that I’ve heard. His set was super-minimal – just his slow, simple songs, his deep voice, and nuthin’ fancy on the guitar. This worked kinda okay and everyone I spoke to loved it, but for me he DEFINITELY needed to give it up a little more for the audience, or at least have some kind accompaniment. Like a couple of lines of speed. At the very least, you could say his onstage persona was consistent with the picture of him you get from his recordings – straight up, and very down.

Joanna Newsom pretty much left everyone totally floored. Her talent seems prodigious – or else maybe she was raised in some hippy commune by poetry obsessed parents who forced her to learn the harp. Stranger things have happened. She performed a lot of the great tracks from Milk-Eyed Mender (Bridges and Balloons; The Sprout and The Bean; Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie; Peach Plum Pear; (if you’ve heard the album you’ll know I’m not kidding about the song titles); The Book of Right On), and a number of EPIC new tracks, which were pretty much open-ended, structure-wise, at least 20 minutes long, and each of which must have contained a small notebook full of her manic, pseudo middle English lyrics.

This is a classic case of a performer sounding bloody awful on paper – the affected voice, the medieval poetry, the harp – but in fact being the complete opposite. Thing is, it’s not what she does, so much as how she does it, and the fact that when she does it, it seems thoroughly natural, even as she sings some highly literate but insensible stream of consciousness rant (yes, Dylan-esque) about cockles and ledgers and little robins and, for all I know sealing wax and brown vinegar all tied up with string. I mean think of Will Oldham for a minute – he sings in a crazy voice and obviously fetishises Depression and Civil War era American life and music, but he’s so completely convincing and great at what he does, that no one (well, none of his fans) barely bats an eyelid at all his ‘thees’ and ‘thys’.

And, for the record, a harp is a cool instrument – it seemed to have the range of grand piano and the timbre of a classical guitar. And, as Ross pointed out, looks like a gigantic chess piece.

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