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Joanna Newsom

March 2, 2010

During the mountain stages of the Tour de France, there are classifications for all the peaks that are crested throughout the course of the race.  Typically, a number is assigned to each mountain based on length and pitch, category 1 is the easiest and category 5 is the hardest.  Occasionally, there are mountains that must be climbed that are just ridiculously awful: hors categorie (without category).  Watching the pros crest these mountains at speeds that I rarely attain on flat ground reminds me why I’m not a racer.

Regardless, I really appreciate the fact that it is officially acknowledged that there are experiences so far beyond the norms that we shouldn’t even bother classifying them.  Hors categorie is an apt description of some of my favorite music, crossbred sounds that would require too many hyphens to accurately title.  Sometimes I like bubblegum music that’s comfortable, predictable, and easily classified in broad genres, but it’s the hors categorie artists that get the most long term attention.

The first time I heard Joanna Newsom’s 2004 debut, Milk-Eyed Mender, I quickly placed her music in the freak folk category.  It was clear that she was a very talented harpist, and her squeaky voice was enough of a tonal contrast to make her three minute ditties worth repeated listens, but after a few weeks in heavy rotation the album faded into the stacks.

When I saw her 2007 follow-up, Ys, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up, but I didn’t expect any dramatic changes.  Wrong.  The first listen was a disorienting experience.  The harp and squawk routine were essentially unchanged, but now they were set against lush orchestration in the context of five songs that are each closer to the ten minute mark than the three minute mark.  I really appreciated that she almost totally destroyed what had been a very successful formula.  This album didn’t get nearly as many repeated listens at first, but as I slowly unraveled its mysteries I became totally fascinated with this hors categorie album.

After Ys I was much more skeptical of my expectations of what I would find on her newest album, Have One On Me, but I was also unbearably curious.  The fact that this album was released as a two-hour long triple disc made it a little more obvious up front that this was intended to be an artistically adventurous album.  In fact, Have One On Me is every bit as artistic as Ys but much more immediately accessible, and after only a couple listens, I’m hooked.  Again, the core formula is harp, voice, and song, but this time around the orchestration is used to much greater dramatic effect, especially when contrasted with the minimalist pieces of voice and harp that were effectively absent from Ys.

This album works well as a cohesive collection with three distinct arcs or as three albums that each hold their own, and there are many songs that linger in the imagination long after the stereo has been turned off.

Listen.

Buy.

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