Joanna Newsom

The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)

SXSW Records

Joanna Newsom

The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) The embroidered album art should've been a tip-off: Nevada's 21-year-old Joanna Newsom is quite possibly the definition of outsider art. The problem with outsider music is that people tend to like it not because it's particularly good, but because it ups their erudite hipness quotient by pretending to be able to stand it. In cases like Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston, it borders on taunting – look at the crazy guy onstage! The outsider becomes the novelty, and the art goes by the wayside. There's art to be found on Newsom's debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, but it suffers in the service of weirdness. As the record begins with "Bridges and Balloons," the listener is lulled, even charmed, by the dreamy, if somewhat primitive, harp playing. Then Newsom starts singing and all motion in the room stops. Her eerie, girlish, even witchy voice is arresting, which is probably why she's been such an underground phenomenon, drawing the attention of Cat Power, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Devendra Banhart. But by track two, "Sprout and the Bean," it's hard to decide if Newsom is annoying or precious. Some songs sparkle amid the weirdness – "Sadie" and "This Side of the Blue" are wistful little gems – but they're not enough to ease the pain. One can only poke oneself in the ear with a knitting needle so many times before unconsciousness sets in, which is a blessed release from this strange little trip. (Thursday, March 18, 11pm @ the Blender Balcony at the Ritz)

*.5

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