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14th October 2014

From the Vault: Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender

“The whole album sounds like an aural iteration of some Baltic tapestry”

Released March, 2004

Drag City

Made back when Newsom still made songs under five minutes, The Milk-Eyed Mender suggests at her precocious talent for beautiful arrangements and enchanted storytelling. ‘This Side of the Blue’ (once used on a ‘switch off your mobiles’ cinema advert) has always felt so familiar, even when it was fresh to my ears. Newsom has a capacity for soaking her songs in a comfortable nostalgia that evokes universal childhood pursuits of fairy tales and semi imagined worlds. At times, but just enough and not too much, her songs have a touch of melancholy, like the soft and slight ‘En Gallop’.

Her vocal style can tip in to the cat lady screech, especially when layered up such as on the ‘Sprout and the Bean’, or when wailing the chorus of ‘Sadie’ or all of ‘Three Little Babes’. The vocals become almost intolerable in the short ‘Peach Plum Pear’, but the sadness in the lyrics and descending vocals that sing “I am blue,” feel honest and sincere instead of fey and jarring. The final ‘Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ hints at the Newsom that is to come, with more careful vocals and a space granted to the music, a space which means her later songs can bear repeated listening without getting boring.

For Newsom, her voice is another part of the instrumentation to arrange and listening to more recent work shows how such arrangements have evolved. Her most recent album, Have One On Me (with three CDs), features an almost classical approach to arranging. In it, Newsom offers variations both in the story telling and in the music that span the entire album, picking up themes on a later track.

Wise or incredibly naïve, affected or gauche, the tweeness sometimes riles as you yearn for something a bit less featherweight. For anyone who tires of Newsom’s earnest folking, the remix of ‘Book of Right-on’ by Clouds is beautiful and demonstrates her appeal beyond any initial antipathetic impressions. The whole album sounds like an aural iteration of some Baltic tapestry and the dreamed landscapes Newsom weaves with her harp are endlessly beguiling. It’s a perfect starting point to follow her to stranger lands in her subsequent albums.

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