MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender
Drag City, 2004
An evocative, dream-like, delicate, and almost-too-precious, shadowbox of a record, full of curios of quixotic poetry and sweetly faux-naif narratives by a verbose enchantress who sings in a bird-like warble, who spins these chimeras from her harp and harpsichord, accompanied by tasteful, spare instrumentation such as slide guitar and Wurlitzer.
At the time this came out, I had never heard anything like it, although the international underground “indie” music scene was just fully being immersed into what some called ‘The New Weird America’ or simply, “freak folk,” and this would be a kind of signpost for me, directing me to stuff like the material coming out of Michael Gira’s Young God Records, that had a stable of related, essentially psychedelic folk acts like Tyrannosaurus Rex-sound-alike Devandra Banhart, the good-time hullabaloo of Akron Family, and heavy goth-country-folk of Gira’s own Angels of Light. Nobody felt quite as extraterrestrial or not-of-this-earth as Newsom though, with her child-like voice flitting through twinkling music-box melodies and her baroque verbiage, the quality of which is so imaginative and rich, that it propels her to a whole other level, that although many a young folk ingenue, including hundreds of songbirds in Oakland, CA, (where I lived for 11 years,) attempted to emulate the precious style with a slight slurring warble in their vocals, the lack of profoundly original wordsmithing would be what set her starkly apart — although her sheer musicality, which only gained heft as she proceeded to make more records, was itself astronomically beyond anything most of her peers would make. This was indeed a kind of gateway drug for me, eventually leading to my investigation into, and love for, ‘60s and ’70s “weird”and psychedelic folk like Karen Dalton, Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs, and Fairport Convention, (whose music I’ve been digging as of late, having found a couple great records in the local “Diggers Den” at Vinyl Junkies Record Shack recently.)
I could also make the argument that Black Heart Procession was the San Diego outpost of freak-folk that was my real entrance, and I certainly spent a great deal of time in the mid-aughts freaked and folked and in all manner of ritualistic, psychedelic, musical jamboree that I needed so much at the time, having transferred from San Diego City College to Santa Cruz at the age of 28 — I was 30 when I got my degree in English — and I was peeling apart my ego to “find some truth” and this beautiful brilliant siren and her harp were ever-present and always comforting, I would catch her shows whenever I had the chance, (AMAZING) and I’ve listened to every record since, so that to hear it now I’m immediately transported and visited by spirits and fleeting characters that allowed me to acknowledge parts of myself that had to be reckoned with, and I daresay this music absolutely, in a convoluted circuitous way, changed my life.