Joanna Newsom The Milk-Eyed Mender

[Drag City; 2004]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: folk-pop, experimental folk
Others: Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, Vetiver, Feist

Warning: Joanna Newsom's voice can be an acquired taste. Luckily for me, I acquired the taste for it about ten minutes into my first listen of her new record, and it continues to grow on me every time I put her album in my stereo. Childlike and pure, sometimes even squeaky when she hits the high notes, I've never heard anything like it before. Once I got over the initial shock of her unusual voice, I knew I had struck gold with The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom's debut. As youthful as she sounds, no child could write such mature lyrics and captivating melodies.

Beneath Joanna's unique voice lies her equally distinctive instrument of choice: the harp. Growing up in a small California town, Newsom began her classical training on the harp at the age of eight, studying harp techniques originating in Africa and Venezuela in addition to more traditional Western methods. Initially interested in composing, Newsom's strong interest in Appalachian folk and bluegrass eventually led her to develop more folk and pop-inspired songs as well as begin to add her distinguishing voice to the melodies she was creating. Her first home recording eventually made its way into the hands of Will Oldham, whose unrelenting support of her abilities helped Newsom to write and record her first full-length album with the backing of Chicago's Drag City Records.

How Will Oldham got a hold of that recording isn't clear, but thank goodness he did, because The Milk-Eyed Mender is incredible. There isn't a poorly written song to be found, both musically and lyrically. Moving effortlessly from soft, gorgeous balladry (the stunning album closer "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie") to lively, bubbly tunes (the strident and animated "Inflammatory Writ"), Newsom's ability to give life to her mesmerizing, heartfelt narratives never falters. Her lyrics are insightful and complex, often making reference to religious and historical figures as well as literary geniuses, even in a song somewhat ambiguously dedicated to her dog ("Sadie").

I can be almost certain in saying that there is no one like Joanna Newsom making music today. She's one of the most remarkable, talented, and fascinating songwriters to cross my path in quite some time, and I can only hope that she and her harp have more in store in the future to expand upon, and perhaps even surpass, her wonderful debut.

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