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Songs from a mailbox

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Joanna Newsom’s new three-disc album has a persistent epistolary quality, as if most of these songs began as allusive, intimate letters written from a somewhat remote location. After a while, you can’t help visualizing the spot: a rural house, with a garden, near a river, with jackrabbits springing by and kingfishers on the hunt. “When you come see me in California, you cross the border of my heart,” she sings, in a way that assumes the heart’s border to be just as tangible as the state line.

As letters will do, these songs often ramble, sometimes even melodically, as if Newsom were thinking aloud while pacing the property, checking the garden but also peeking in at the big spider that sometimes won’t let her leave her room. Or maybe she’s singing about last night’s dream, but in such a way as to affirm that all the things she experienced there can be touched and felt in her waking life.

The heart is a particularly vivid item in these songs, to be opened and examined frequently, whether as treasure chest or tomb. She sings about it the way ancient balladeers might, with tunes that often sound antique, while her harp and her bright, childlike voice imply that this fair lady’s unicorn may arrive soon. But she also has a more rugged side, which comes out when the gentle motion that launches many of these tunes (the ballad-like Baby Birch, for instance) toughens up with drums and distorted guitar, and starts to swing. Her vocal tone can harden suddenly and maybe not intentionally, and after two albums she still hits some high notes with a pronounced click.

No Provenance begins like an elfin love-song, but then a habanera rhythm creeps in, and the feeling of that delayed second beat is too knowing and carnal for fairy trysts. That beat is one of Newsom’s favourites: She uses it again and again, along with the trick of starting a song small and blowing it up later (with help from arranger Ryan Francesconi).

“Mercy me,” she sings at the start of Occident, and her voice somehow justifies the antiquated speech. Unlike some current rootsy musicians who want us to believe they’re hopping freights, Newsom doesn’t require us to teleport to the thirties. Her old-time sounds and language seem to be focused on present situations. It’s a risky thing to attempt, and she often succeeds. But her songwriting strategies aren’t really varied enough to keep this project lively for two full hours.

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