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: Beautiful Maladies (Tom Waits)

Album: Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
Artist: Tom Waits
Genre: Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Claptrap
Year: 1998

In honor of Tom Waits’ new album Bad as Me, which comes out today, I thought it’d be a good time to look back at an earlier phase of his career.

In the last few years, Tom Waits has somehow emerged as a revered national treasure.  I say “somehow” not because this is undeserved (It is. It definitely is.), but because he’s still doing the same thing he’s been doing since about 1988, in the same way, but suddenly his prominence in pop culture and the general public awareness has exploded.  So you have heard of Tom Waits, but if you haven’t ever listened to him, a back catalog reaching back over the last thirty years makes the proper point of entry a little hazy.  If one wanted to explore Tom Waits, where would one start?  You could grab Bad as Me, which is wonderful, or…

…with Beautiful Maladies.

It’s a compilation album, encompassing the work Waits did for Island Records during the ten years from 1983-1993, and usually compilation albums suck.  This one was compiled by the man himself, however, and it attains what compilation albums (and even live albums, mostly) never do, which is coherence and a sense of narrative.  In fact, the sequencing of this album is decidedly similar to his Mule Variations from 1999.  Both albums start with a kick (“Hang on St. Christopher,” “Big in Japan”) that sets the table for what is to follow — strange instrumentation, a unique spiritual landscape somewhere between Dust Bowl America and Brothers Grimm Germany, and Tom Waits’ distinctive vocals and phrasing — before drifting into meditative, slower numbers (“Clap Hands,” “Hold On”), spoken word pieces (“Frank’s Wild Years,” “What’s He Building in There?”), nighttime meanderings through Waits’ world of invented characters fresh from burlesque shows, circuses, and boxcars (“Shore Leave,” “Eyeball Kid”), and deeply moving, closely observed examinations of real life crashing in on people in lonely, heartbreaking ways (“Strange Weather,” “November,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and “Pony,” “Georgia Lee,” “Take it With Me”).  So not only is Beautiful Maladies a compelling album, at the end of the day, it’s a compelling Tom Waits album, that feels as organic and unified as anything else he’s done.
Waits has a reputation for his gravelly voice, and it is well earned, but people often overlook his range and diversity of vocal presentation.  On albums like Blood Money, Waits’ voice sounds like it’s on its last legs and it can be hard to listen to at times. It wasn’t until I heard subsequent albums that I realized his voice doesn’t have to sound like that. On Beautiful Maladies, there are Blood Money moments, like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” but there are also moments when Waits could be characterized as even crooning (“Innocent When You Dream,” and a personal favorite, “Time”).  By creating this cross-section of a representative period of his career, he has forged a compelling primer for the many voices of Tom Waits, and it lowers the barriers to entry for people to whom his voice might sound jarring at first.  Like anything, though, the edges become smoother with repeated listens, and ultimately, this man’s enduring songcraft, his totally unique perspective on the human condition, and his alluring sense of gallows humor are the characteristics that have allowed him to capture so many people’s imaginations.  All of them are on display in Beautiful Maladies.
Find more Tom Waits albums at Myspace Music
Finally, if you have never heard Waits’ original version of “Downtown Train,” and are only familiar with Rod Stewart’s schlocky cover version, you really, really, really owe it to yourself to hear the original.

Great Album Reviews: The Dust of Retreat

Album: The Dust of Retreat
Artist: Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s
Genre: Pop, Chamber Pop, Indie
Year: 2006

Just after Pandora came out of beta, I created a station seeded from Damien Rice, and one of the songs that kept popping up was “Jen is Bringin the Drugs” by Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s.  It’s Richard Edwards — singer, rhythm guitarist, and chief songwriter for Margot — by himself, a sad song with just an acoustic guitar and vocal, and it has an aching, world-weary beauty that stuck with me. So when I went to MySpace Music to check out the band, I was surprised to discover that Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s actually has a roster that rivals its unwieldy moniker.  The band has something like nine people in it, and most of the tracks on The Dust of Retreat feature layered guitars, bass, piano/keys, horns, strings, drums, and percussion.

A bigger surprise came when I saw them live, and Margot instantly became maybe the heaviest band I have ever seen — and I’ve seen Cryptopsy, Metallica, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Napalm Death, you name it.  In the Troubadour in Los Angeles, they brought the members of the opening act up onstage with them, at times resulting in 12 people playing together, threatening to buckle the rafters with what I had always thought of as nice little indie pop songs.
That just goes to show that there is nothing else out there like Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s, and their debut album, The Dust of Retreat, is a unique work that insists on being listened to over and over again.  There is a breadth of diversity on Dust, but it still manages to remain cohesive.  “Quiet as a Mouse,” for instance, begins as an atmospheric mystery conjuring images of alienation, and explodes into a clinic of wall-of-sound rock.  “Talking in Code” tips delicately between a soft acoustic guitar and what sounds like an entire marching band, all anchored by Edwards’ tender, melancholy vocals.  Margot has been compared to Arcade Fire, which isn’t quite right, and I hear echoes of Death Cab for Cutie, though more raw and earthbound, and the later Beatles albums, with the notable exception that those albums were culled together from four distinct voices, and Margot’s work reflects the strong, if diverse, guiding hand of a single architect.
After The Dust of Retreat, Epic Records signed the band, and the immediate result was a very public dispute over the content of the band’s major label debut.  Epic released an album called Not Animal, and permitted the band to release their own preferred version, Animal!, on vinyl and (eventually) digital.  Both are wonderful albums (but FYI, the preferred version of “Broadripple is Burning,” woefully over-produced on Not Animal, can be found here, as performed at Daytrotter Studios), but they seem less urgent than Dust, so it remains at the top of my Margot playlist.
Potential barriers for the uninitiated: One of the strengths of this album is its musical diversity, but lyrically the songs are uniformly pretty somber.  This album feels like it was written while trapped inside during an Indianapolis winter (and it probably was…), and while there are moments of real humor that poke through — “Paper Kitten Nightmare” stands out — people who aren’t so into the mopey side of indie rock might have a couple of hang-ups with the record.