Friday, December 17th, 2010

AMNESTY WEEK 2K10: Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company

And it’s another one for the stick…


Anthony Easton: Newsom continues with her whole quirky for the sake of being quirky femme chick vibe, this time attached to a ladies of the canyon kind of low key vibe, but the lyrics are new age twaddle, her voice is the helium bunny gone weird, and the production is filled to the gills with sheer pretension. Can she go away soon?

Edward Okulicz: Her voice is still a startlingly dreadful instrument that signifies difficulty for its own sake and its worst crime is it doesn’t even render the lyrics unintelligible.

Chuck Eddy: Could possibly tolerate her ridiculous art-song vocal stylings if she had, I dunno, a band like Sparks in 1972 backing her up, or some 1979 Lene Lovich new wave beats. But this off-kilter piano-folk wheeze just doesn’t cut it, certainly not for seven minutes. Jazzy stuff near the end did add a point, though.

Michaelangelo Matos: The wayward theme to a forgettable ’70s road movie, from right at the point when the entire concept of the “’70s road movie” was hitting the dirt.

Alfred Soto: Best appreciated as a compendium of feminine vocal mannerisms of the last thirty years: Laura Nyro’s hyper-arch trill, Joni Mitchell’s self-deprecating doubling-back upon a lyric, to Kate Bush’s multi-tracked accretion of complexity; all that’s missing is Joan Armatrading’s hortatory bellowing. And I do miss it. The organ washes and brass section remain too damn subtle for my taste. Good intentions, good company.

David Katz: Ys was a shocking, startling album and its burst of verbosity and dense orchestration grabbed listeners by the collar and didn’t let go. You were either dazzled, intrigued or in some cases discomforted by it. Point being, for music fans of a certain stripe, it commanded this attention in a way not many single albums can do. And so three years later, along comes Have One On Me, which considerably strips away the eccentricity, and accordingly, most of the garish personality of her past work. Good Intentions Paving Company exemplifies the album’s pared-back stance: an early 70s classic rock song that Joni Mitchell could have penned in her sleep. Once you’ve hired the orchestra, Van Dyke Parks and Jim O’Rourke, not even triple-LPs can curb the downward slide after the peak.

Alex Macpherson: The closest thing to a pop song on Have Oneu On Me – I still feel inordinately virtuous at having sat through all three CDs of it. It’s easy to pinpoint Newsom’s fortes: her instinct for how words sound, for instance. “Like a bump on a bump on a log, baby / Like I’m in a fistfight with the fog, baby / Step, ball-change and a pirouette / And I regret, I regret!” goes the song’s most enjoyable verse, and it’s both evocative of the narrator’s confusion and Newsom’s own love of language. The vocal nodes that forced her to abandon her more grating mannerisms are welcome, too: she’s no less creative a vocalist now, and much more listenable. But as admirable though this is,it’s also unlovable: you come away impressed at the depth and breadth of Joanna Newsom’s talent, but without much desire to go back for more.

Alex Ostroff: Good Intentions Paving Company is nothing if not generous. As with any number of songs by Newsom, there is a surfeit of details to explore. There’s the way that her description of a road trip doubles as metaphor for the relationship that sours as the road gets rough. Joanna may protest that she can drive, even if her heart can’t, but by song’s end, they both struggle to stay in the right lane. Or the way that both stories dovetail with the gradual musical shift from rolling pianos to tinges of bluegrass (carried over from the lovely stop-gap Ys Street Band EP) and finally the well-earned wordless coda. But none of those are why ‘Good Intentions’ is the song that forced me to finally pay attention to one of my now-favourite artists. This is: her voice. Joanna’s voice, so often decried as twee or precious, rebuts every critique thrown at her. Expressive and varied, she effortlessly runs the emotional gamut from apprehensive to excited to wistful, sometimes all at once. Listen to the way she wraps herself around the word ‘duration.’ Every layer of this has contours to delve into – Joanna twists and winds her way around the instruments, around your ears and your brain and your heart. At seven minutes in length, I’ve probably spent a couple of hours of my life in 2010 listening to this, and I pick up on more nuances every single time.

Zach Lyon: I like this a lot as a logical extension of her career. If Joanna Newsom is going to exist, it’s probably best that she starts to veer towards this hefty Joni revivalism. It’s a coat that fits her almost surprisingly well. And you have to go from twee to somewhere.

Jer Fairall: I’m willing to concede that what she’s doing is either over my head or just something I lack the patience to decode, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to hear, in her, the warmth and good humour that I get from Owen Pallett, the beatific humanism that I hear radiating from Regina Spektor, or the acknowledgement to pop form that Bjork, even at her most eccentric, rarely lets wane. This is actually less of a chore to get through than other things I’ve heard by her, not at all unpleasant, really, but still wooly and aimless and precious as all hell.

Jonathan Bogart: Jackson Browne just got the weirdest boner.

Martin Skidmore: The title is very good, and she is trying all sorts of different things here, swinging between styles and genres, not so set on the harp and all that, but her mannered singing tends to annoy me and I somehow end up unable to absorb the lyric at all, perhaps too distracted by the vocal gimmickry. Not for me.

20 Responses to “AMNESTY WEEK 2K10: Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company”

  1. Joanna’s #3 on the controversy list. Keep ’em coming…

  2. “Newsom continues with her whole quirky for the sake of being quirky femme chick vibe”

    I’ve always got the opposite vibe to that — this is someone who hates quirky for the sake of quirky, and in this album she was perhaps almost too aware of some detractors who labeled her as such, ending up with too many songs that are too straightforward- Several of them quite beautiful, but as an album not the kind of coherent listening experience as Ys was. She’s at her best on Have One On Me, when, like with the title track, she goes back to the strengths of Ys– those long songs that rise and fall through the most elegant melodies and phrases that never seem to end.

    But even though I feel three discs was a mistake and would rather go back to her last album, she’s still never been ‘quirky for the sake of quirky’ — she’s too concerned with the craft of songwriting, the meaningfulness of words for those cheap arguments to stick. Disappointing that so many fall back on those same old trite words when they’ve only ever described her most superficial qualities.

  3. I’d like a moratorium on the word “quirky,” effective now, lasting indefinitely. It’s become the late ’00s/early ’10s equivalent of “Lilith Fair” as a pejorative or the rote Kate Bush comparison. The word’s all but inherently gendered now, an quick and dirty summing-up and dismissal of almost anyone who happens to be new and female. And like a black hole, it sucks in everything in its radius. I mean, people are describing Laura Marling — ! — as quirky, when I Speak Because I Can is among the least “quirky” albums released by any female singer-songwriter this year. Enough already. (I’m guilty of it myself, of course. It’s hard not to be when the meme is so widespread.)

    Didn’t get around to blurbing this, but I wish I had now. I’m a bit surprised at all the comments about her voice — either I heard it differently or she sounds differently now, but it’s nowhere near intolerable. If this was her first album I doubt her voice would get anywhere near the amount of comments it does.

  4. Oh yes it would.

  5. Point. I suspect they’d be more “ok, this is odd,” though, and less “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS.” Possibly because she’s prettied up the backing vocals and high notes here. Of course, they’re still Katelike (and this time they really are, at least regarding her backing vocals; compare to, say, the backing vocals on “All We Ever Look For” or the non-Cockney parts of “There Goes a Tenner.”) But there’s at least a familiarity there.

  6. I actually indirectly compared her quirky singing to a quirky man up above, you’ll notice (Russell Mael of Sparks), and even suggested a frame that might make me not wince at it so much. Hadn’t tried listening to her for years when I put on this song; basically had no real memory of what she sounded like. So I was just reacting to what I heard. Can’t imagine why I’d have reacted any differently if she was a new artist.

  7. Katherine

    I would say fair cop, except she CONSTRUCTS HERSELF AS A FEMALE, AND AS A FEMALE WHO IS WEIRD. But she isn’t weird at all, and her gender is completely extraneous–it’s like Sufjan, who i also think is quirky, and also did an album this year that made me want to go all stabby, but with Newsom she does this performative gender that rewards lazy readings and then gives people shit when you swallow the pill.

    I like weird–i love Bjork, I love Kate Bush, I love the 18 minute version of Black is the Colour of my True Loves Hair from 1969, that is all keening and noise. Fuck, I even love the Danielson Familee.

    Weird takes brass ovaries, weird takes a commitment to a certain kind of fuck you energy. Newsom is like Ally Sheedy of the Breakfast Club, you know pretending to be strange but just aching for a makeover and a solid fuck from the sociopathic jock.

    I hate her voice, I hate how she slides into a never ending set of female cliches, but expects to be rewarded for how much of a rebel she is, I hate her privileging per formative female socially acceptable quirkiness over genuine weirdness, and I really fucking loathe that she had the audacity to put out three albums worth of music that had less skill, audacity, weirdness, and vocal skills as half a minute of a Rhianna B Side.

  8. Think the word’s great, but also note that it’s generally being used sarcastically as hell, at least by me. Which is to say the quirks are borrowed, derivative, generic; are shortcut signifiers that signal individuality and significance. That is, they’re not quirks. I remember writing Chuck a couple of years ago that I was impressed by how Gabriella Cilmi and Sonya Kitchell managed to sound quirky and anonymous at the same time. I said something of that sort, anyway; if I didn’t say “quirky” I said the equivalent.

    But none of that makes it bad music, necessarily, just a bit – or more than a bit – phony. The styles cover a range – Tashbed and Winehouse and Florence could be touchstones, and that shows just how big the range is. I was actually praising Cilmi and Kitchell in that letter, not for being anonymous per se but for making some good music.

    The range of styles is gendered, with or without the word “quirky,” since it’s mostly young women for whom such styles seem like potential pathways for their aspirations. I don’t see any reason why either a style or a putdown can’t be gendered.

    That said, I don’t comprehend Newsom but I wouldn’t call her “quirky”: her singing is too aggressive and too much of a challenge for that. And her being saddled with the term “freak folk” is already enough of a burden. But one has to recognize that styles get contaminated. If you come on “freaky,” that will paradoxically make you innocuous (but “innocuous” isn’t necessarily bad). Being “Dylanesque” became almost worthless as a road to actual poetic lyrics after the mid ’60s (which is why Dylan stopped being Dylanesque), just ended up sounding like more teacher-pleasing bullshit; “noise” was virulent for the Velvets and the Contortions but by the late ’80s was a wretched cliché (though the music still could have force). Oddly enough, Marina and the Diamonds are almost certain to make my albums ballot this year, and the Flo/Dizzee “mashup” is on the bubble for my singles top ten. So you never know if a style is artistically depleted unless you take the records one at a time.

    By the way, I thought “old-timey Southern” twisted into “weirdness” when I first heard Newsom, the quotation marks around weirdness not meaning that she can’t genuinely be weird or odd but that the oddness has to contend with the fact that weirdness has lost its fire (and its weirdness) as a social move.

  9. can you talk about the last idea, Frank?

  10. How has she constructed herself as a female who is weird, in all caps, re:anthony…? Actively using that as a pedestal, I mean, since it’s the concept of her being weird and claiming some sort of throne that pisses you off so much. What if we say she’s not weird, or that those qualities which you say she lacks is not why I like her? Or is it just a strawman Joanna- because I don’t hear this insistence on being a rebel in her music (or from her words in interviews). I do wonder what her detractors would say if her voice just sounded plain, though, if any of these discussion would be had at all.

  11. have you seen the cover art of her first album, that is pretty much an irony free creation of female self hood, even without her purposefully quirky voice

  12. You don’t mean The Milk-Eyed Mender, do you? Because, well, it looks like this: . You could make a “childish” argument, definitely, but it’s pretty neutral on gender.

    You could probably make an argument that Newsom is engaging with the quirky-MPDG image (correlation and causation, but it’s interesting that both of these descriptors seem to have picked up in the past few years), I’ll give you that. But “quirky,” more and more, is a checkbox word I’d read a few times too often when I posted that (here wasn’t the last straw; I was going through some reviews). Much more interesting to talk about what “quirks” someone has, how they use them, etc.

  13. you know how some women, who are smart, and who are well educated, play act being odd and child like, in order to gain status among a misogynist indie scene? They hide their light under a bushel of needless eccentricity? That’s what I get from Newsom. I’m not sure its fair to call the person who is noting the self loathing behaviour for being loathing themselves.

    Also Mender, how the fuck is that not gendered, it has an unironic, or at least a barely ironic unicorn. But her album covers, her live shows, her recordings, all work v. v. hard to make her appear interesting, and she does it at expense of a kind of mousy and safe female coded weirdness.

    It’s a lot like Cat Power around the time of that AVedon photo, with the whispery interviews, the aborted stage shows, the half not caring, half making a mess of things that played really dangerous games with really uncomfortable tropes or Tori Amos suckling a pig, or PJ Harvey in that black bra and hot pink cat suit at glastonbury, but all of those were attempts at a critical estrangement. Newsom plays like she is attempting at critical estrangement while doing the wallflower seduction schitck.

    its not a shitck i have a hell of a lot of patience for.

  14. What if she’s just sort of like that? Maybe some women are odd or childlike? This isn’t an entirely gendered
    phenomena — indie/hipster/white privilege culture has long been mired in a desire to cling onto or revert to youth. It’s where a lot of Animal Collective and MGMT and general irony comes from. If you’re going to mention the misogynist indie scene, why take all this time blaming her instead of the misogynist indie scene? She’s at least been pretty consistent with this sort of stuff since the beginning of her career… if anything, she’s been getting more and more serious-grownup-person since MEM, which is one of those things that happens to people when they get older. Joni Mitchell seems to be the antithesis of what you’re talking about, and this song is straight-up Joni worship.

    I don’t expect her voice to “mature” because that’s just her singing voice — I never really expected Prince’s singing voice to “mature” either. I had a friend in high school who was (and most likely still is) the same way: her speaking voice was mousy, high-pitched and gentle. Everyone assumed this was just her voice, until she broke into the “real” one, which was freakishly low and made her sound like an executive at 16. But she still has ownership of her voice and her image, so as far as anyone else was concerned, the voice she used was the voice she was dealt. No one complained, as she preferred it and it fit her better. I don’t think Joanna’s voice is really so constructed for an attempt at “critical estrangement” via mousy weirdness, it’s very possibly just the voice she grew up singing with, in choir or high school ska bands or whatever she did. I don’t know if her voice is even the biggest problem you have with her, but it sounds like it’s up there.

    The only issue I really take with her in this track is her tendency to alternate wonderful lines or verses (the one Lex mentioned, “and I will love you til the noise has long since passed,” etc) with faux country-bumpkinisms that come off sounding condescending. But that seems to be a different debate.

    Wasn’t Cat Power’s erratic behavior largely a result of her alcoholism? And Harvey explained that the catsuit era was a result of confusion over her self-image, not critical estrangement. Not that she has to explain it — male rock stars have been doing this shit for decades. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really know what you’re trying to say. I think you’re defining Joanna by a lot of things that aren’t really there.

  15. Anthony, I wasn’t making a very big point, actually. Once weirdness is associated with integrity and individuality and is praised as such, it loses its force and its character (and this is true no matter how genuine the weirdness). Kind of inevitable, though what I said was a great exaggeration. Weirdness has lost its fire and weirdness if you’re within range of bohemia; elsewhere, it depends on the circumstances.

    (But I’m not saying much about the song in question, which I’ve made little effort to grapple with.)

  16. By the way, my reading of the criticism aimed at Newsom (though obv. it’s not the same criticism coming from everybody), is that people feel she’s too studied and restrained. And that could well end up being my criticism of her too, though I’m not there yet. “Restrained” and “studied” aren’t always flaws, of course.

  17. Late on this, but the cover’s also got a Tonka bulldozer, a bat, a spiderweb, a big ugly mushroom, slugs and snails (no puppydog tails, sadly). It’s pretty egalitarian with its boy/girl doodles.

    Everything else I was going to say Zach got to, although I’d argue the voice is pretty inextricable from most people’s criticism of Newsom. It’s the first thing you notice and criticize, the five-second tag, etc. — with good reason, of course, but still.

  18. Zach

    I have spent lots and lots of time giving Animal Collective, et. al shit for their misogyny and the obnoxious of their public personae. We are talking about Newsom here though.

    I think that her circuymstances are weirdness as a career move, as an ambitious pulling forward.

    I might be wrong about that cover, but its the beginning of a self fashioning, no? Cf YS. (oh, how I hated YS)

  19. I find it liberating that in this enlightened age a modicum of vocal talent is no longer prerequisite to a recording career, but her discordant shrill is a wall I’ll never be able to scale.

    Just fucking horrible.

  20. either I heard it differently or she sounds differently now, but it’s nowhere near intolerable

    It is different, as per this interview:

    What the album does contain is more than two hours of exquisitely beautiful songs over three discs, performed with a new singing voice after the old one quite literally disappeared.

    Newsom developed vocal cord nodes in spring 2009, and all that came out when she opened her mouth “was like the hiss on opening a Coke can”. For two months she went around with a notebook, forbidden from singing, speaking or even crying. “In fact crying was the absolutely worst thing I could do to my voice. So I was constantly telling myself, don’t feel, don’t feel, don’t feel.” On recovering, she mourned when she realised that her old voice was never coming back, though she says she must give “full disclosure” and admit that further vocal modifications have been deliberate.