The week was pretty stressful for this moi. I have a bunch of half-formed thoughts about why the Girl Talk record is consistently fine but not, you know, revelatory and why I don’t care that the Beatles are once again being resold to a questionably hungry market via i-Tunes. I’ve been revisiting disc two of Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me following her great show at the Paramount, pairing it with Cat Power’s Moon Pix and imagining a conversation where they don’t talk about Bill Callahan. I recently watched Pedro Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom, which doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test but merits a future entry here. A lot of my mindgrapes that needs, if you’ll pardon the pun, fermenting.
As we head into Thanksgiving week and I go to a friend’s birthday party tonight, I thought it would be fun to post a couple of music videos from some acts I like who make music to dance to when you have insomnia or are running from zombies at a disco. You know, stuff that would be on a playlist with Glasser’s “Mirrorage.” Enjoy!
“We Want Our Things”
Am I Real?
Directed by Ola Vasiljeva
“All Around and Away We Go”
Color Your Life
Directed by Mike Luciano
Directed by Jacqueline Castel
Recently, I had lunch with a fellow Austin-based feminist and pop culture critic. We were talking about blogs and Web sites we follow and at some point, she mentioned that she doesn’t really follow too many other music blogs because too many of them dwell on Joanna Newsom. Fair point. Tonight, however, I will completely disregard it in order to discuss Visions of Joanna Newson, an anthology about the singer-songwriter Roan Press released earlier this year.
As I’ve indicated a few times on this blog, I have harbored mixed feelings about Newsom. When her full-length debut The Milk-Eyed Mender was released on Drag City in 2004, the genius label was already affixed, most notably by white guy music geeks who seemed far too interested in casting her as their manic pixie dream girl. When I finally worked past the hype and actually heard her, I was instantly put off by a voice I dismissed as pretentiously twee. In short, I would not have been the ideal reader for Visions.
While I have no interest in being any text’s prefered audience, I came around a bit on Newsom. I warmed up to Ys and really liked Have One on Me. Much of my reappraisal of Newsom stems from how the artist talks about herself. I was pleased to find the person behind the guise of her generation’s fairy laureate is a talented, self-aware young woman who can take a joke and doesn’t much take to people calling her voice child-like. And when I finally got past her polarizing voice, I was stunned to find a devastating wordsmith with a keen sense of phrasing. Now that I’m used to it, I really don’t see what all the fuss was about.
So, much as with Newsom’s oeuvre, I attempt to come to this book with an open mind. I admit to having some reservations going in, principally that it would be nothing more than a collection of love letters to the miraculous god(dess)head that is Joanna Newsom, offering much fan boy frothing but little to no critical insight.
Frankly, some of my suspicions were confirmed here. The most discomforting example of idol worship was in Tim Kahl’s arch “Your Feyness,” which reveals that he possesses feelings for a collapsed sense of the artist’s persona and her work that make him feel like a Japanese businessman who buys schoolgirls’ soiled underpants from vending machines. I also bristled when reading Dave Eggers’ re-printed “And Now, a Less Informed Opinion,” wherein he intimates that he hasn’t seen what Joanna Newsom looks like and hope that she’s hideous because her quirkiness would be forgiven by a beautiful face (which, I’d argue, it has). I get that both authors are trying to call into question the sexist impulses of some men’s fan practices, but neither of them overcome it in my estimation.
I was also not fond of tendencies toward formless sprawl and indulgence here, particularly evident in Robert McKay’s “The Awakening of Desire in the Classic Musical Work: A Speculative Exegesis of Ys.” After wading through 42 pages that refer to Newsom as “the Bard,” don’t conclusively argue why we cannot consider the album as pop music, and much philosophical application of four of the album’s five songs, I’m still not sure of the essay’s point. Also, I completely disagree with the writer’s need to set value-based distinctions like high and low art, positioning Newsom as an exemplar of form and composition rather than as the bad object. The only thing I gleaned from it is that the protagonist or dominant theme of one song often makes a small but substantial appearance in the next consequtive track. Interesting point, though given that four of the songs are meant to represent life-changing events in one year of the singer’s life, overlap seems intuitive.
Apart from finding such commentary personally useless, it may speak to my interest in hoping for a more refined and disciplined approach toward criticism away from humanities-based tunnel vision. In addition to narrower focuses into Newsom’s contributions, I was also hoping for inquiries outside the text that consider the cultural and industrial factors that evince Newsom’s artistic relevance in this particular moment.
I will say that some close readings of Newsom’s work were quite valuable. I enjoyed editor Brad Buchanan’s meditation on how Newsom employs both affection and affectation toward similar ends. I appreciated Jo Collinson Scott’s insights on how music invites the process of becoming and inhabiting identities outside one’s personal experiences. I liked T.S. Miller’s essay on “Colleen,” which explores the cultural origins of the folk tale, the feminist implications of naming and transformation, and the etymology of the word “Colleen,” which originates from the word “cailin,” an Irish term for “girl.”
I also valued insights into who the artist was beyond the records and thus found childhood acquaintance Aniela Rodes-Ta’s recollection of coming of age in Nevada City with Newsom to be interesting. I was most invigorated by essays who thought outside the text, like Shayne Pepper’s essay on how The Milk-Eyed Mender critical success generated out of the emerging cultural viability of music blogs as tastemakers, which also created spaces to circulate Newsom covers by reknowned male indie musicians like Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and M. Ward.
I also enjoyed Lisa Fett’s piece on Benjamin Vierling’s cover art for Ys, which utilized applications of egg tempera in classic portraiture and wove various symbols associated with the artist and the album, while at the same time subtly positioning her in a contemporary context.
After reading, I wondered what insights I wanted included to enrich my understanding Newsom. An obvious absence is an interrogation on Newsom’s whiteness and Northern Californian roots. I wonder how her racial privilege informs her interests in West African polyrhythmic harp playing, Appalachian folk singing, and American hip hop. I’m also curious as to how Newsom negotiates art with commerce, at once diving headlong into recording challenging musical material on an independent American label while licensing many of her songs and becoming a recognized style icon. With so much weight placed on Newsom’s formidable prowess as a lyricist, I’d like more emphasis placed on how she uses humor in her work. While I appreciated the inclusion of poetry inspired by Newsom, I wanted more writers to explore various writing forms in their exploration of her work, perhaps asking the artist to talk about herself rather than observe and weave quotes. Finally, I hope folks avoid the impulse to argue Newsom as exceptional and make more of an effort to put her in a context with other contemporary female artists.
As Newsom evolves, it’ll be interesting to see if she continues to inspire future generations of writers and critics to make their own sense of her and her contemporaries. While at times uneven, the offerings of Visions of Joanna Newsom suggest there’s much left to discuss beyond mere fan boy conjecture.
Erykah Badu’s latest offering is one of the year’s most anticipated releases for me. A long-time fan, Mama’s Gun changed my perception of the world. Carrying on the artist’s tradition of bridging personal reflection with political awareness, 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) evinced the work of a maturing artist and mother with an insurrectionist’s heart. Released during the twilight of the Bush Administration and somewhat of a musical departure with its use of digital composition and recording software, Badu linked the political climate to the addiction and disease that destroyed many people of color during the “greed is good” Reagan years. Sometimes, as with TV on the Radio’s 2008 release, Dear Science, Badu suggested possibilities for change. But most of these moments came from within and not out of hoping a political leader would make any profound difference for the citizenry.
While 4th World War should be judged on its own merits, another reason it was so interesting was that it was the first installment of a two-part series. And if this album was so forward-thinking and challenging, what lies ahead in part two?
The answer will be the focus of this entry. Released at the end of March, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) was preceded by a controversial music video for lead single “Window Seat.” My first introduction to the song was about a week prior to the video’s release. She performed the song with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and I was pumped.
Some reviewers have been disheartened by this album, which basically focuses on a disintegrating romatic relationship. Jody Rosen claims it’s too consciously strange at times and is lacking in many actual songs, which is a claim I think you could make about 4th World War upon first listen. Jessica Hopper believes the album’s inward focus lacks the energy and cultural relevance that propelled the series’ first offering.
While I’m an admirer of both critics, I think Oliver Wang‘s assessment most closely mirrors my thoughts. While 4th World War may have been more outwardly political and Return of the Ankh more personally reflective and at times self-pitying, I find Badu to be consistent, and her newest release only bolsters my opinion. Going back to Baduizm and including Worldwide Underground, Badu’s oft-overlooked follow-up to Mama’s Gun, all of her albums contain moments of self-reflection and political consciousness (sometimes in the same song, as on “Other Side of the Game,” “…& On,” and “Danger”) celebrations of love, and outpourings of grief (Mama’s Gun‘s “Orange Moon,” “In Love With You,” and “Green Eyes”). Her albums are also punctuated with skits and asides that suggest that Badu is at once strange, silly, and smart (“Afro” and “Amerykahn Promise,” for starters).
All of these moments can be found here. There’s reflections on the personal and professional juggling that Badu tires of in “Window Seat.” “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)” focuses on capitalism in ways that to me recall Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings protest “Money” and P!nk’s “Stupid Girls,” which mockingly indicts status-obsessed starlets. But these concerns have always been in Badu’s mind.
Album opener “20 Feet Tall” features Badu reminding herself that she is strong enough to get over her heartache. Studio riff “You Loving Me” is an example of Badu’s self-deprecating humor that may have been cut from another artist’s album out of a need to showcase more polished, “important” work. And closer “Out My Mind, Just In Time” recalls the wordplay and drama of “Green Eyes” though is messier, more emotionally conflicted, and ends in discordance that recalls Joanna Newsom’s “Does Not Suffice,” from another great 2010 break-up record, Have One on Me. I also think the last track is a promise of things to come: Badu may be wounded for now, but she’s got unfinished business to tend to.
And while 4th World War wasn’t as lavish a production, all of her albums show a clear indebtedness to funk, soul, and jazz in their arrangements. They also feature hip hop’s common practice of sampling (revisit “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” or take a look at her production team for clearer evidence of Badu’s fandom). As Wang points out in his review, samples provide multiple layers of meaning that gesture toward the time in which Badu came of age as well as her influences and personal history.
I’d also like to reclaim the break-up album a bit, as women have made art out of them, processing personal feelings with little filter and suggesting how power dynamics are gendered in heterosexual couples. Joni Mitchell did it with Blue. Björk did it with Homogenic. As with Mama’s Gun, I think Badu is continuing in that tradition.
Finally, while its contents may lack obvious political content, I think Badu and Kyledidthis created visually stunning and connotatively loaded album art. On the cover, Badu is drawn as a robot — perhaps the robot girl she sings as in “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)”. Black female artists have referenced the cyborg and the android in their work, notably Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Janelle Monáe. Cultural critic Steven Shaviro neatly unpacks the potential connotations of Elliott and Kim identifying as cyborgs in his essay “Supa Dupa Fly: Black Women as Cyborgs in Hiphop Videos.” In a culture that privileges whiteness and still clings to racist ideologies, whether consciously or not, black women especially have been dehumanized because of presumptions about their sexuality and pressures to abide by Anglo/Eurocentric beauty standards.
Robot Badu confronts her potential audience on the cover, her gaze direct. Human Badu emerges from her skull, naked, sitting in grass, holding a tuning fork, and under a tree with branches that spell her name. Surrounding the robot is the flora that continues to grow amidst human-made weapons, airplanes, government buildings, and foreclosed houses that accompanied images of dead babies, fast food, television, and drugs on 4th World War‘s cover. While nature is long associated with female identity, Badu acknowledges her continual presence in both worlds. This album’s growing on me, and evidence that one of pop music’s most original artists is herself still evolving.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve long been on the fence about Joanna Newsom. I remember playing “Bridges and Balloons” from The Milk-Eyed Mender once when I was still at KVRX. Her name had been bandied about in hushed, reverent tones by fellow deejays and I had to find out who was causing this kind of fuss. Upon first listen, I promptly thought to myself, “what is this art school pixie nattering on about? Is this some Nell shit? More like Joanna Nuisance.” Immediately after the song finished, a female listener called to thank me for playing the song, espousing its beauty with complete sincerity. Yeesh. Point taken, sister. I took a little more time with Ys, but wasn’t converted.
My flippancy might seem unjustified given my professed adoration for Björk, and I recognize that. Bottom line: I respected that Newsom was a rare talent, but I didn’t get her appeal. In theory, I’m down with Lisa Simpson playing a harp, but actual listening didn’t beget actual enjoyment.
So when I found out Newsom’s long-awaited follow-up would be a triple album, I was like “ho boy, that’s going to be a lot of obscure words and ululating.”
It is, but in a great way.
I’ve since spent the last week listening to her new album, Have One on Me and feel like I need to check back in with Ys. For smart criticism on Have One on Me, I’ll gladly refer you to reviews from Ann Powers, Jonah Weiner, and Mark Richardson. Oscillating almost exclusively between it and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, that’s a lot of time with two smart women’s words. It was a week well spent and has carried over into this one. I’m certain that these two albums are the ones I’ll treasure from this year.
One reason I was able to warm up to Have One on Me is because it’s “accessible,” at least comparatively speaking. Some might interpret this as a taming of Newsom’s sound. Her voice is more controlled. Her arrangements, though spare in a way that recalls The Milk-Eyed Mender, are approachable and gorgeous. They even suggest a pop sensibility that gestures toward a potential connection between her and Carole King and Joni Mitchell’s work in the early 70s. I think all of this does a service to what are ultimately straightforward songs about the complexities of adult relationships. She’s not accessible so much as she is direct.
In addition, I think my attitudes toward pretension have changed since I last considered Newsom. I’ve spent some quality time with Kate Bush and Elizabeth Fraser, post-punk’s grand-mères of affectation. Song cycles about drowning? Lyrics pieced together out of gibberish, abstruse terminology, random words, and antiquated names? Hello.
These considerations have prompted me to stretch back toward Mitchell. They’ve led me to reconsider favorites like Björk, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case. I celebrate contemporary artists like Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, Antony Hegarty, and Julianna Barwick with renewed vigor. I even volley contradictory opinions about Lady Gaga. In fact, after Newsom I should revisit Patti Smith and Tori Amos to see if my opinions of them have changed. I might want to see who this Amanda Palmer person is all about too.
I’m interested in how these artists use pretension for two reasons. For one, I like the effrontery of female musicians whose work seems to bellow, “I’m an artist with a capital A. My music is really important and great. If I need my work to be excessively florid, doggedly conceptual, or sonically challenging, then you can deal. If there was room for prog rock, there’s room for me too. In fact, I am prog rock. No, I have eaten prog rock, along with the book Roan Press published that exalts my genius.”
More to the point, when pretension is used in the service of songs about female experiences, it seems as though there’s potential for the mundane yet particular realities of being female to contain artistry, fantasy, and perhaps even transcendence. In Newsom’s case, as the record is teeming with reflections on motherhood, the pressures of couplehood between creative people, and the struggle for women to maintain autonomy as they mature, the pretensions feel earned.
That said, my threshold for pretension is slanted by my gendered purview. Newsom stretches odes to break-ups, possible abortions, empty rooms, and the West Coast well past the three-minute mark here and I listen. When it’s Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy, I want to stab him so he’ll quit singing or reaching for his thesaurus. “Forty-winking in the belfry,” indeed.
Of course, while I may approve of female pretension, I also have to check it. Here’s where Annabel Mehran’s album cover seems necessary to consider. Newsom is draped across a chaise, suggesting an archetype in portraiture known as the Odalisque. Strewn about her are knickknacks from a decadent bohemian lifestyle — shawls, rugs, lamps, pelts, stuffed animals, antiques, a peacock.
To me, the image composition most clearly brings to mind Henri Rousseau‘s “The Dream.” Erté may also be an influence, as Newsom is fashioned a bit like his “Scandinavian Queen.” The political implications of these artists’ styles, and their respective involvement with Post-Impressionism and Art Deco should not be overlooked, particularly with regard to race. The former was notorious for its problematic, first-world fetishization of its own notions of primitivism. The latter poached quite a bit from Japanese woodcuts, thus perpetuating Orientalism. Indeed, when you juxtapose Newsom’s alabaster complexion against her exotic surroundings, the racial implications of female pretense become troubling. Who is afforded the time to ruminate? Who gets to lie in repose?
With that said, the cover, like the contents of the album, are beautiful, troubling, and revealing. They demand considerable examination and they’re getting it from at least one listener.
I had the pleasure of catching Dessa‘s set last Friday at Red 7. She went on second, after Astronautalis and before headliner and fellow Doomtree rapper P.O.S. Now P.O.S.’s set was electric, crackling with verve, wit, and high energy. If you haven’t listened to P.O.S.’s Never Better, it was one of the strongest releases of last year.
However, Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code is a strong contender for my album of the year, bringing continued attention to the Minneapolis-based hip hop collective and troubling the acclaim bestowed upon Spoon’s Transference and Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me. If you haven’t listened to Dessa’s first full-length, get on that. Make sure you’re sitting down when you hear it, lest her flow fly at such a clip with such a force as to knock you over. The woman born Margret Wander has a way with words.
Women in American hip hop have always been an anomaly. Unfortunately, this is just as true for independent artists as those working in the mainstream. Some of these women have yet to cut an album despite doing incredible work on other (male) MCs’ albums, though I patiently await albums from Lionesque and Joyo Velarde. That said, those who are currently working underground are amongst my favorites: Jean Grae, Psalm One, Invincible, and Dessa. I like Kid Sister fine, but I want these women to run the game.
In many ways, Dessa reminds me of Grae. Both share an assured flow, pointed elocution, a deliberately casual look, and a hard-luck attitude toward love. But Dessa also brings a jazzy alto to her work, along with a poet’s ear for meter. This is much to her background as a spoken word artist, a term with a lot of cultural baggage. It’s hard for me to hear the words “spoken word artist” and not recall two characters from Medea’s Family Reunion improvising a mixed-media piece on a date or the hacky sack scene in She’s All That. Others have lampooned spoken word and its practitioners’ tendency toward self-important hackery, like Zadie Smith did in On Beauty or Dave Chappelle did in a rejected sketch for Chappelle’s Show that combined Def Comedy Jam with Def Poetry Jam.
But Dessa, much like Sarah Jones, The Last Poets, and Gil Scott-Heron before her, pulls off spoken word by incorporating it into her sound, thus expanding its aural possibilities. Dessa trades in words, which are conceptualized by some to be masculine and in contrast to a sung melody’s feminized, abject emotionality. But the way in which those words are delivered — whether as a rap, a vocal line, a verse, or some combination of all three — allow her to manipulate time signatures and rhyme schemes, giving her greater freedom to explore sound and verse. That her songs are often wry, smart, candid inner monologues about family, childhood, addiction, and relationships make me even happier that I’m hearing a female voice articulate them. Even when she threads cover songs into her own material, as she did with Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (or perhaps Jeff Buckley covering John Cale covering Leonard Cohen), I need only hear the voice and see it coming out of the performer on stage to know where it’s really coming from.
As perhaps evidenced by the clip above, witnessing her performing this sort of word jazz live was really something to behold. Her set-up was spare — simply her microphone and deejay Plain Ole Bill‘s turntables. And yet, the minimalism showcased the immensity of her talent. She was also really funny and open on stage, which helps orient where those songs come from and only adds to her magnetic presence. I especially appreciated her recounting a story about being in the lady’s room at the gig and the lights turning off. She took pride in the other occupants checking in on each other instead of running for the exit. She has a lot of faith in women and girls’ capacity for survival should the apocalypse come. I have a lot of faith in her potential as an artist. Dessa’s mic sounds nice.
I’ve noticed that all the album covers I’ve considered so far all feature the artist responsible for the work. Since I’ll soon write a blog entry on Joanna Newsom’s pseudo-odalisque for the forthcoming Have One On Me, I thought it would be fun to pick a cover that not only doesn’t feature musicians, but instead has an image that’s damn indecipherable.
Issues around legibility are why I didn’t choose to write about Vaughan Oliver’s cover for The Breeders’ better-known and wonderful Last Splash or his work on Lush’s Split. With the former, I’m 99.9% sure we’re looking at a heart-shaped strawberry covered in something more viscous than dew (edit: according to my friend Erik, it’s a liver). Also, that image compliments the album’s sticky ruminations on ripe female sexuality. Split‘s cover focuses on fruit as well, displaying lemons in a presentational manner that honors the album’s cinematic qualities but belies its ambiguous feelings toward dissolved relationships.
But what the fuck is going on with Oliver’s cover for Pod, the band’s debut? Is that some interpretive dancer wearing a leotard who has wilted green beans for arms? Are those even arms or are they another set of appendages? You got me.
(Note: again, according to my friend Erik, the cover is a picture of Vaughn Oliver dancing with eels strapped to his waist. Whoa!)
The swirl of gauzy lighting, sugary colors, and ambiguous figures is a hallmark of Oliver’s work with 4AD. I believe he did as much to create an aesthetic to match the label’s definitive dream pop and shoegaze as Peter Saville‘s stark, exacting compositions did for Factory Records’ output. With 4AD, the defining principle around both its look and sound was abjection. Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style recently brought up issues of abjection with regard to the construction of Jessica Simpson’s celebrity persona. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press made similar claims in The Sex Revolts about the womb-like sonic quality and pre-verbal, gender-ambiguous vocalizations that characterized much of shoegaze and dream pop, singling out My Bloody Valentine and 4AD labelmates Cocteau Twins.
I think The Breeders align with the abject as well. The name references founding members’ Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly’s sex and the naturalized biological function of the female body in ways that confront and mock patriarchal convention as well as evoke fear. This sense of terror is perhaps further enforced by the presence of bassist Kelley Deal, Kim’s identical twin sister. The album’s title suggests gestation, a bodily process fraught with abject implications. This theme extends to its songs as well. As Erik pointed out, “Hellbound” is about a baby who survives an abortion. The band’s origins even suggest the process of casting off, as Deal and Donelly initially came together to form a side project during the twilight of their time with 4AD acts The Pixies and Throwing Muses.
Furthermore, while The Breeders seem to have a more conventional sound anchored by accessible melodies, their music is far emotionally murkier than initial listening may suggest. Pod showcases a surprisingly clear, crisp production aesthetic engineered by Steve Albini for a pittance, but there’s something too narrow about the sound and too intense about the bright vocals and high harmonies. They help create a distinctly female tension that doesn’t get resolved after a quiet verse transitions into a cathartic, loud chorus. When the other shoe drops, as it does on songs like “Iris,” there’s little chance of release after the chorus so much as the certainty of more claustrophobic terror constricting the still moments waiting in the next passage.
And songs like “Oh!” contain little structural release apart from Deal’s splintered yelp at 1:47. They just wait. The band pounce elsewhere on the album, and you’re never ready for it when they let loose. It just proves that with women, like albums, can’t be judged by their covers.