Great Album Reviews: The Milk-Eyed Mender (Joanna Newsom)

Album: The Milk-Eyed Mender
Artist: Joanna Newsom
Genre: Folk
Year: 2004

Joanna Newsom plays harp and sings. When my five-year-old first heard her in the car, after about ten seconds he said “Oh! What a terrible voice!” Probably any discussion of Joanna Newsom has to include, somewhere, the mention that her voice isn’t for everybody. And now that’s out of the way.

Milk-Eyed Mender received all kinds of accolades on its release and landed on several best-of year end lists. Her follow-up album Ys did even better with the critics, landing on many best-of-the-decade and several best-album-ever lists. There’s a tremendous contrast between the two albums. Ys is a lush and lavish tapestry of mind-bending, fully orchestrated storytelling that plays out across five 7- to 16-minute compositions, with an all-star team behind it, including orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks and production work by Steve Albini (who has has a happy place in my Hall of Fame for his work with Nirvana and Neurosis). Milk-Eyed Mender, though, is almost exclusively Joanna. It’s her voice and a harp, or a piano, or a harpsichord.

And it seems to come from somewhere else. A different time and place, or maybe an entirely different world. The album feels like a faerie or woodland spirit stepped out of a fantasy novel and learned that there was such a thing as a “folk song,” in which someone plays an instrument and sings words about things, so she decided to try it. But instead of a guitar, she grabbed a harp (it’s an instrument), and when she tried to sing about highways and human struggle and loneliness, it came out like this:

There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road
There are some dragons who were built to have and hold
And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly
and some great bellies ache with many bumblebees

I don’t know what that means. But I know how it feels, and after eight years with this album, it still transports me and remains deeply, deeply evocative. What else can you really ask from an album? Ys is beautiful, but less surprising to me. If I told you there’s this harpist who’s making waves in the indie music community, and you nodded, then I told you she writes 10-minute songs about monkeys and bears while backed by a full orchestra, you’d probably keep nodding. Harpist, orchestra, ok. It seems to kind of fit. The thing I love about Milk-Eyed Mender is hearing the same artist put her utterly unique stamp on traditional 3- to 4-minute songs. The result is one of the more beautiful attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole I’m aware of.

And I genuinely like her voice. The moment toward the end of “Peach, Plum, Pear” where a whole chorus of Joannas join in is one of my favorite moments of the album. There’s a lot to love on this album, if you can acquire the taste for it. I will attempt to leave you with something that’s easy to love. Like all thinking people, I have a profound distaste for YouTube comments. But this one nailed it for me: “This song just gets me in the marrow, you know?” I do.

Great Album Reviews: Folkways – The Original Vision

Album: Folkways: The Original Vision
Artist: Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly
Genre: Folk
Year: 2005

When Moses Asch died, he left behind an astounding legacy of over 2,000 albums in the catalog of his Folkways Records label. For over 40 years, Asch had been releasing folk music from around the world, and his recordings of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly helped shape the folk revival that took root in early-60s NYC. Upon Asch’s death, the Smithsonian Institution acquired the label and its holdings, issuing Folkways: The Original Vision as the inaugural release on the new Smithsonian Folkways label.

2012 is Woody Guthrie’s centennial year, and there are celebrations and concerts planned all throughout the year. I was very fortunate to be able to take my little boy to the Woody Guthrie tribute concert here in LA on April 14, and I am proud to say I now have a 5-year-old with a crush on Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody’s granddaughter) and who runs through the house singing Woody’s Union Maid.  I’m pretty sure I was the only one who brought my kid, and to be honest, that’s kinda too bad. 
It is not possible to overstate the importance of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly to American music.  And if you haven’t listened to them, or aren’t currently, please, treat yourself to this album.
It’s always daunting to try to leap into the body of work of some legendary figure in music or literature. How do you know where to start? I guess it’s different now with iTunes and playlists and everything, but I remember distinctly standing there like a goon one day in college trying to figure out which of three Willie Nelson compilation albums I should buy (for the record, I probably should’ve just bought Stardust, but you live and learn). You could go the same route with Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, churning through the countless “Best Of” or “Best Loved Songs” collections out there, or you could jump in whole-hog and buy the 4-disc set of Woody’s Asch Recordings. But in this case, take my word for it: start here.
In my earlier review of Tom Waits’ Beautiful Maladies, I mentioned that album was curated by Waits himself, which is important, because it’s usually the quality of the curating that makes a compilation album worth a damn or not. The problem with those Willie Nelson 10 Best Songs or 16 Biggest Hits or what-have-you is that you know nobody who knows what they’re talking about is actually picking that track list. In the case of Folkways: The Original Vision, it’s hard to imagine someone doing a better job.
In the case of Woody Guthrie, you have a cross-section featuring his social conscience (Jesus Christ, Vigilante Man), his wit and humor (Do Re MiTalking Hard Work, Car Song), and his stunning slice-of-life storytelling (my personal favorite, I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore). And above all, you come away with the razor-sharp knowledge that Woody told a truth that was right in 1944, it’s right today, and it’ll be right in another hundred years. He provided a soundtrack as fitting for the Great Depression as the Great Recession three generations later. Listen to Jesus Christ and tell me it doesn’t still hit home. That’s why I wanted my son to know about Woody Guthrie. 

Lead Belly was about 20 years older than Woody and taught him a lot.  But Lead Belly’s songs (with the notable exception of Bourgeois Blues, which he wrote after being denied a hotel room in Washington D.C. because he was black), are less evocative of outright social struggle than they are of American folk life.  My parents picked cotton, and I remember walking cotton fields as a kid, so Lead Belly’s songs like Cotton Fields and Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie are particularly evocative for me coming from the Gulf Coast, like he did. This collection has those songs, as well as In the Pines (later made ultra-famous by Kurt Cobain as Where Did You Sleep Last Night?), and Goodnight, Irene, which me and Tom Waits and Willie Nelson and a million other folks have played. 
Also worth noting is that you can download the wonderful liner notes for Folkways: The Original Vision from the Smithsonian Folkways site here.

Great Album Reviews: Pictures at an Exhibition (Moussorgsky/Ravel)

Album: Pictures at an Exhibition
Artist: Modeste Moussorgsky (composer), Maurice Ravel (arrangement)
Genre: Classical
Year: 1874/1922

Though originally written as a piano suite in 1874, way before anything like what we think of as an album existed, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this an album.  If you wanted to, you could even call it a concept album.  But whatever you call it, the fact remains that Modeste Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition changed my life.

There are two stories here — mine, and the music’s.

Here’s my story: In 2000, I was in college and playing in a kind of progressive metal band with my friend Robyn, a cellist who went to what was at the time Southwest Texas State University, where she was in the school orchestra.  They had a recital one night, so I went down to be supportive, with no expectations at all.  I sat in front of the cellos and double basses to watch a tiny orchestra, and they began playing Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition.

A few things happened to me during that performance. First, it made me want to write music. I already enjoyed classical music, and I’d produced a CD of piano music by the incomparable Ryan Dawe, but not being a trained musician, classical music always felt too dense for me to really understand in any way that transcended simple, ignorant enjoyment.

But as I watched the double basses playing Moussorgsky/Ravel in San Marcos, Texas, and I paid attention to just to their parts at first, the construction of the thing started to make sense to me.  I found myself suddenly conscious of how these different components breathed through the piece — BIG HORNS, no horns, soft strings, quiet horns, BIG EVERYTHING, just a trumpet, soft counterpoint on the basses, BELLS! — and how the introduction, re-introduction, and evolution of the “Promenade” theme linked everything together into what felt like a narrative.

Second, I *felt* something.  I’d wrapped myself in the melancholy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and the frustrated rage of Mozart’s Requiem Mass before, but this was the first time I’d been taken on a deep, really shattering emotional journey by a piece of classical music.

I went home. I put a bunch of synths and stuff on my computer, and I started writing electronic music, ultimately calling the project Mission 13.  I was, you understand, exclusively a drummer up until this point.  No exaggeration, I don’t go to San Marcos that night, there is no Sci-Fi Romance today.

And here is the music’s story: Modeste Moussorgsky was a composer and pianist in 19th century Russia under the czars, and friends with the artist Viktor Hartmann.  Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, and after his death there was an exhibition put together of many of his paintings.  You see where this is going now.

Moussorgsky was shaken by Hartmann’s death. But inspired by that gallery showing of his lost friend’s work, he began a tribute, a composition that mimicked walking through the exhibition.  It begins with the Promenade, walking in. You spend time in front of different paintings, each its own small composition, and you walk between them, each time hearkening back to the Promenade, until finally you reach the last painting, and the last movement of the work, The Great Gate of Kiev.  All the while, the emotion builds so that ultimately there is a tremendous explosion of joy at the beauty before you, mixed with the sadness of the loss you’ve endured to get here. Here’s how it ends:

Listen: the work is so enthralling, that when Svatoslav Richter played it in Sofia, Bulgaria, to an audience of 1500 sick, coughing, sneezing people during a 1958 flu epidemic, there are passages so intense that the audience literally stops coughing.

A few years after I saw that first Pictures at an Exhibition performance, I took Robyn, my cellist friend and former bandmate, to Houston and we watched the Houston Symphony perform it. That entire Southwest Texas orchestra could’ve fit in just the horns section.  I cannot describe how loud, how immersive, how shattering it was. When the lights came up, neither of us could move.  Robyn finally said “I feel like I’m on drugs.”  I kinda did, too.  I felt exhilarated, and broken.

And I can offer no higher praise to the experience of a work of art.