Music Reviews
The Milk-Eyed Mender

Joanna Newsom The Milk-Eyed Mender

(Drag City / Spunk) Rating - 10/10

I long ago accepted that I'm in a minority when it comes to music. More often than not, other people either have no idea who I'm talking about, or disagree with me entirely. And really, most of the time, there's just no point in arguing, is there?

But sometimes, a musician comes along who makes you want to spread their gospel far and wide, for the good of all music lovers, and humanity in general. A musician who seems to have been sent to us from another world, to remind us what music, poetry and excellent songwriting is all about.

23-year old Joanna Newsom is most definitely such a person, a folk extraordinaire with pixie-like features and a ragged, childlike voice, sent to us from the gods in heaven, via Nevada City, California. And with a harp, no less!

Despite her youth, Newsom has long been a word-of-mouth sensation. Her first home-recorded folk songs, while unreleased, had already been making the rounds before finding their way into the hands of, among others, Will Oldham, who invited her to tour with him. She has also opened for Devendra Banhart and Cat Power, but even in this context, she cuts a league of her own.

With her distinctive voice, which catches and cracks occasionally through the force of glee and emotion, Newsom conveys a whole world of American country and folk influences. A self-professed fan of Appalachian music, Bluegrass and old blues, Newsom has a charming and idiosyncratic approach to songwriting. Part homespun poetry, part American folk, her love of story-telling feeds into her overarching folk sensibility.

And who'd have thought that the harp, alongside the piano, harpsichord and slide guitar, could be the instrument of choice for such a prophet? A large Celtic harp, too, not a small whispery one, which Newsom plays in equal parts like an angel and a belligerent street busker.

Furthermore, it's just so refreshing to hear contemporary songwriters using, you know, good grammar and proper syntax and stuff. It's this sheer literacy of her song-writing that makes her stand out. With an avant garde range of literary references, her songs are at times oblique and stilted in their language, but never prosaic or over-emotional. Lines like "See him fashion a cap from a page of Camus" might leave you perplexed, but it's a pleasant sort of open-ended contemplation.

From the ambling, country-style folk tale of Sadie, to the hearty, galloping piano sing-along of Inflammatory Writ, The Milk-Eyed Mender is like a travelling scrapbook of Americana, varying wildly in pace and tone, but with not a single bad song among them. Best of all, it is multi-layered in way that stands up to many, many listens, like a well-worn book of poems. This could well be my favourite album of 2004.