Noise 101 : Reflector CD Reviews for March 4 Edition
by Sean-Paul Boynton
It takes some serious guts, or maybe just a missing inner sense of concision,
to put out a triple album as a studio recording of new material. The two most famous examples – The Clash’s Sandinista! and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass – represent the two ends of the spectrum that could explain such an outpouring of music at once.
The Clash’s follow-up to their seminal
London Calling album basically stretched that record’s formula of trying on different hats while remaining under the umbrella of “punk” to its extreme, experimenting with old-school hip-hop, raga, dub, bluegrass and sound collages until they had two hours of music, none of which they wanted to throw away. “There’s a great album hidden within this mess” is pretty much the best one-line review for Sandinista!, proving that experimentation only works if you have a good editor.
Harrison’s first solo album, however, is one of the most cherished records of the classic rock era: instead of coming off as a bombastic statement of diversity a la the Clash, All Things Must Pass shows the ex-Beatle finally being allowed to show his ever-increasing power as a songwriter, which was constantly overshadowed by his more prolific band leaders. So the arrival of a triple album mere months after the collapse of the Beatles was a major
statement from Harrison: “I’ve been silenced for too long, so here’s everything you’ve been missing.”
Considering this past history, we now have two ways to look at Joanna Newsom’s new, ambitious, two-hour-long, triple-disc album. Is it a rambling portrait of an artist run amok in the studio? Or is it a sudden burst of inspired creativity from a hidden talent finally finding her spotlight?
By the end of this delicately arranged sprawl, it becomes clear that Have One On Me is in fact the best of both examples.
It is lush, romantic, adventurous, spontaneous, frightening, enlightening and simply gorgeous. All of this becomes clear, however, if you are up to the challenge
First of all, a full disclaimer: Newsom is not for everyone. She writes songs the way symphonies are constructed, and even though many of the songs on Have One On Me contain easily digestible hooks, there are enough curveballs and ornamental flourishes to make even the most open-minded music connoisseur sit up and take notice in puzzlement. Her imagination is endless, which is probably why she has stretched herself out over three discs.
There are only 18 songs here, but few of them are less than six minutes. Newsom writes epics, but she’s not looking
to jam; rather, she’s a storyteller in the grandest tradition, and simply needs room to allow for her extremely detailed
and richly evocative lyrics to take flight and paint pictures for the listener. Newsom’s singing is flighty, untrained, and playful in the way she caresses a line and defies expectations in her phrasing. Like Ari Up of the Slits, she approaches singing like it’s an adventure, as if she can only sing these words once or the magic will be lost forever, and she never wastes a breath.
The songs on Have One On Me need to be heard in full to appreciate the power of Newsom’s poetry, but like any great songwriter, she still has the power to evoke emotion with a single line. “And I regret how I said to you, ‘Honey, just open your heart,’ when I’ve got trouble even opening a honey jar,” goes the most potent line found in the astonishing “Good Intentions Paving Company.”
Or consider this passage from “Jackrabbits,” in which Newsom portrays a woman who’s not ready to let go of her man, so she goes out drinking, only to come back home and: “I stumbled at the door with my boot/I knocked against the jamb/I scrabbled at your chest, like a mute, with my fists of ham/Trying to tell you that I am telling you, I can – I can love you again/Love you again.” This is only scratching the surface of Newsom’s gift for details – a Slick Rick for the alternative
But “alternative folk” shouldn’t be used as a genre classification, however. The truth is that Newsom is an artist who can actually be described as truly unclassifiable.
Who else would write 10-minute epics to be played on the pedal harp, or chirp lyrics about hopeless romance like a delighted child? Who else would have the guts to put out a triple album in the iPod generation? No one should, but Newsom did, and if you take the time to uncover this record’s many, many gifts and treasures, you will believe in miracles and that music can just be music for music’s sake.
More tracks on the racks
Dear Johnny Cash, you have a voice as deep as an Alabama swimming hole, and the emotion that you’ve expressed in American VI: Ain’t No Grave has matched that depth and then some. Ten tracks of classic Man In Black that you recorded while in failing
health and dealing with the loss of the love of your life. “Ain’t No Grave” and “Cool Water” serve to cement the legend you’ve become. I like to think that you sang Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” for June; your love for her emanates throughout the track and makes it the best of the album.
When it comes to Tim Burton’s films, it can be assumed that you’re going to get something unusual and outside the box. Unfortunately, Burton’s originality was not applied to the soundtrack of his soon-to-be-released
film, Alice in Wonderland. The 16-track album Almost Alice is an extremely Disney version of what could have been an eerie and dark representation
of the upcoming movie. You know you’re in trouble when Avril Lavigne is the highlight of the album. That being said, however, one can see how snippets of these songs may fit into the film. But as a whole, the album doesn’t work.
Who would have thought that the Pet Shop Boys, extremely British and unwarranted epitome of gay culture as they are, would remain one of the most thrilling live acts working today, more than 25 years after “West End Girls”? Probably not them, which is why Pandemonium, a CD/DVD document of their recent tour, is so much fun: they know they shouldn’t be here, yet here they are, so they might as well blow some minds. The set – including most of their classics as well as great new material – is outstanding on CD alone, but the DVD adds the spectacle of their laser and light show, which rivals Pink Floyd.
Shane McGowan & Friends “I Put A Spell On You”
While the A-listers remake “We Are the World” and “Everybody Hurts” to raise money for Haiti, McGowan and pal Johnny Depp decided to have a little fun. Their raucous charity cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic features Chrissy Hynde, Mick Jones (The Clash), Nick Cave, and more, and what results is punk blues at its most chaotic. Watch the video for great moments like Jones banging a fire extinguisher with a stick and Depp smoking a cigarello while playing guitar.
Broken Social Scene “World Sick”
An epic in the grandest of terms, yet still grounded in fresh indie thinking – yup, this is Broken Social Scene, alright. Their first new music in five years, this track off the Toronto collective’s upcoming Forgiveness Rock Record spans close to seven minutes, yet doesn’t waste a second. The best part comes in the rousing climax, where everything comes to a head and should crash into a cacophony of sound, but…doesn’t, instead opting for a sweet comedown.
Janelle Monet ft. Big Boi “Tightrope”
This pompadour-ed pixie, with her strange concepts (an EP about robots) and wicked pipes, is proving to be the Erykah Badu of the 2000s. This latest single is as welcome and exhilarating as the girl who made it. Over old-school brass and a Stevie Wonder-esque strut, she nearly bests guest Big Boi in wordplay and manages to sound like Tina Turner after her abduction by aliens. She even gives props to the horn section – what a class act.