Have One on Me (Drag City)
Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, Fri., April 2, 2010
Joanna NewsomHave One on Me (Drag City)
With no obvious musical precursor, California harpist Joanna Newsom was ghettoized when her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, washed up in the regrettable "freak folk" wave of 2004. She was anointed a hippie-dippy wood nymph with a weird voice, and "indie" crowds approached her like a rare painting in a museum. Her ambitious 2006 follow-up, Ys, arranged and produced with Van Dyke Parks, unspooled like a Disney movie, all strings and sweeping melodies. Impressive and ambitious in scope, Ys gathered yet more converts, but its mock renaissance fair portrait of Newsom reflected an image that had become caricature. On the cover of her third LP, Have One on Me, Newsom's relaxed, sprawled out like a Nevada City version of Norma Desmond. It speaks volumes about a woman's ability to reinvent at certain ages, and in a way, it's her Court and Spark-era Joni Mitchell moment. She's no longer "elfin," finally in control of her unique voice, and the musical poetry on the 18-song tome is more confident, smooth, and emotionally vivid. Gone are the bluebirds on her shoulder, replaced by moodier, sparer arrangements. She's in no hurry, the 3-CD set throwing back to a time when albums were digested in parts, over an afternoon. There's an aura of loss, but Newsom's focused, staying ahead of the sylvan scenery with piano playing that lends a warm coastal air to the upbeat jam "Good Intentions Paving Co." Alternately, "Baby Birch" is a gut-wrenching walk, but Newsom's voice is lullaby-like, no histrionics or regret. "You and Me, Bess" is an accessible blues ballad; "Soft as Chalk" demonstrates she can be more seductive than sweet in the song's evocation of "law-less-ness." Have One on Me runs about five songs too long, which stands out during a two-hour listen, but largely she invites you in rather than challenges. There's some heavy shit being laid out here, but like a good poet, Newsom's wordplay is so masterful you want to sit and take it in.