Apr 12

Joanna Newsom: “The Book of Right-On”


It’s Joanna’s playground; she just lets us play in it.

There’s no one quite like Joanna Newsom. And some people might say that’s a good thing, and that they only wish there was no Joanna Newsom either. But those would just be the people who are overly sensitive to offbeat vocals. And she’s got offbeat vocals. No matter what you think of her, there’s no getting around her vocals, which are comparable roughly to a 4-year-old girl who’s really good at singing in key. The eccentricity level is high for Newsom — she definitely comes off like someone you’d imagine is unbalanced in real life, but if you happen to hear her speak in an interview, for example, she’s a totally level, very intelligent, down-to-earth individual. Which of course makes you wonder even more where that singing voice comes from. She said in an interview following her appearance on Austin City Limits something to the effect that her voice takes her where it wants to go — she’s just following along. Which in this case might explain quite a bit.

I saw her perform several years ago at the Sasquatch Music Festival in George, WA (yep, “George Washington,” for those of you who don’t live out here). She was quite captivating, and after her voice the next thing that comes to the forefront is her mastery of the harp, which to me has always seemed like one of the most complicated of instruments. It’s remarkable not only that she can play that well, but also that she can do it while singing. All things taken together, she’s quite a unique talent, however you choose to define that.

Her first two albums, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender and 2006’s Ys (apparently pronounced “eeze”), are both great. I really don’t know who to compare her to — I suppose musically it might be a descendant of Joni Mitchell’s early music, if you switched the guitar for the harp. But really, who cares — it is what it is, and you’ll enjoy it or not. And one of my favorites, and one of her most immediately approachable songs, is from The Milk-Eyed Mender: “The Book of Right-On.” I’m not really sure what to make of its meaning (possibly sung as a member of some elite group inviting someone into that group, but warning them to remember their place in the hierarchy), but the mood is enchanting, and I love lyrics such as these:

I killed my dinner with karate
Kick ’em in the face, taste the body
Shallow work is the work that I do

It’s a sound that carries you to a different place, and even if you don’t know where that is, surrender to Newsom’s whimsy and you’ll find that it’s a pretty excellent place to be.

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