Joanna Newsom,
The Milk-Eyed Mender
(Drag City, 2004)

The subject matter: ballads, startling metaphors and mythological allusions. The instrumentation: harp, piano and harpsichord. The Milk-Eyed Mender is defiantly unclassifiable and hyperbolically artsy.

This one's right up the alley of the serious music fan in your life. You know the type -- the more avant-garde-than-thou person who sneers at anything that isn't atonal, obscure, indie and impossible to like on first listen.

Or second, or third. It's unfortunate, because Joanna Newsom incorporates unusual African kora rhythms in her harp playing, crafts intelligent and somnambulistic lyrics ("Hundred raging waters snare the lonely sigh / Oh you hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopeia") and pens subversively catchy melodies. In fact, all is well until she opens her mouth, and even then, you're more likely to want to sing over her than stop the CD, because the music would be so good if she could only sing.

She can't. She bleats, wobbles, breaks and meanders off key through each of the 12 tracks on the CD. It's certainly an unusual listening experience, but unusual doesn't begin to make up for a total lack of range, clarity, polish and tone. Newsom sounds like a cross between Bjork and Bob Dylan, both on the worst days of their respective careers.

Highlights include the fairytale-tinged "Sprout & the Bean" and the contemplative, almost beautiful "Cassiopeia," on which Newsom sounds merely childish and nasal. When she really belts it out on "Inflammatory Writ" and "Three Little Babes," she's capable of inducing headaches. I challenge you not to cringe when she squeals "Bless them" at the very top of her range on the otherwise enjoyable "Sadie."

Even Newsom's ability to use fun words like "taciturn" and "poetaster" in her songs doesn't redeem her voice. Newsom fans point out that The Milk-Eyed Mender wouldn't be the same if Newsom had a more conventional voice. I agree. It might be a CD I could listen to without a bottle of Tylenol.

review by
Jennifer Mo

6 December 2008

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