Monday, 25 January 2010
I Just Don't Like Joanna Newsom
What's the etiquette here, can anyone tell me?
Am I supposed to put some big label, or yellow and black-striped-back sign saying “WARNING: POTENTIALLY CONTROVERSIAL POST”? Or has this rather self-effacing first couple of sentences (along with the – let's face it – fairly descriptive title) tipped you the wink that Something Polemical This Way Comes?
Yes, I don't really like Joanna Newsom. And yes, even a relatively mild statement like that (it's a statement of dislike, but not exactly a strong one) may potentially be enough to summon forth the armies of slightly twitchy indie fan boys (and girls) she seems to attract. And yes, she's critically acclaimed, and yes, I do value critical acclaim a lot, but no, to my ears she can go and ceremoniously do one. And no, like all things of dislike, it's not a completely rational thing – why should it be?
But let's start with something I can actually defend – her music. Note: this isn't about her voice, which I don't really have that much problem with, but the actual music. Oh yeah, I listened to the Milk-Eyed Mender when it came out, though for the life of me, I'm not sure why. Okay, that's not true – it starts promisingly enough, if her toddlerlike voice doesn't bother you. “Bridges and Balloons” and “Sprout and the Bean” were nice enough ditties; gentle, melodic and sugary, but not so twee they became annoying because they were interesting. Part of that was that she had a new sound, but new things can be interesting, right? However, the album fairly dwindled after that....in fact, I'm struggling to remember what many of the other tracks were called – I think one was called Swansea, which I remember finding amusing because how unlucky is it to put what you think is a joyously quirky title to something, only to find it shares the name of a godforsaken South Wales shithole. I remember the music failing to spark, the pleasant melodies became tacky and repetitive, the sparse arrangements became instantly forgettable. I didn't mind her voice though.
Ys did the same trick, pretty much. Sure, she managed to get in Van Dyke “No, I wasn't one of the Beach Boys, I just kinda hung around near them” Parks to do some string arrangements, and sure, the songs were more like epic pieces of storytelling, but by the end of the album, I couldn't give a monkeys. Ys pulled off the rather unfortunate trick of being the kind of album I can put on, then forget to pause when I nip down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. You don't realise it's on, and while sometimes that can help an album get under your skin, I guess my skin must've been Teflon-coated for its length, cause it bounced off me like rainwater.
And everyone LOVES her, so it seems. EVERYONE loves her. I generally consider metacritic a good summary of reviews – bringing attention to overlooked gems (like say, Amadou and Mariam), and also giving opportunity to mock critics over albums that were actually shit (step forward, the Magic Numbers. Ys got 85. That's ridiculously high. WHY? I've heard more engaging pieces of music when overhearing my flatmate squiring some lass in the shower when I'm just trying to play computer games and ignore the world.
Of course, if we're talking about “everyone loves her”, then well, I mentioned slightly twitchy indie boys earlier. Part of the problem! Christ, it seems like to some people, any vaguely human looking woman performing 'indie' music is instantly a hottie. I'm reminded of the comment about Josie Long, “a plain, dump girl in a Les Savy Fav t-shirt is still a plain dumpy girl.” I want to just grab them all by the collar of their fucking plaid shirt and shout “listen, she's not going to sleep with you just because you listen to her music!” Although, the average twitchy indie boy is probably more scared of sex than anything else, so maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree.
There's plenty of other things that annoy me about her, most notably her association with Devendra Banhart (who is utter bobbins and annoying to boot), but they're personal gripes. And this is going to get more than personal. See, the problem is that because Joanna Newsom's pretty much the most successful contemporary female singer-songwriter who's “a bit weird”, there's no unco cases of people getting tarred with the same brush as her. Take Blue Roses, for instance. Blue Roses is Laura Groves, a female singer-songwriter from Yorkshire. She ploughs an interesting furrow, pastoral yet dramatic tunes which have hints particularly of Kate Bush and early Joni Mitchell about them. I adore the album, which is why I've brought it up. Let me tell you, my heart sank a foot or two when I started seeing reviews comparing her to Newson. See, there's a couple of songs in which she affects a vaguely childlike voice for a few lines, but that's it; for the most part it's post-teenage drama of the likes Bush and Mitchell were so good at during the starts of their careers. IT DOES NOT SOUND LIKE JOANNA NEWSOM. And this is symptomatic of a wider malaise – I ought to be lambasting the music media for its love of lazy comparisons, but...no Joanna Newsom, no problem. She's given them an excuse, an easy reference point that isn't that accurate. Laura Groves has more character in her little finger than Joanna Newsom, yet she's lumped into the “if you like Joanna Newsom, you should give this a chance” category. Completely unfairly!
So there you have it, I don't really like Joanna Newsom. I don't like her music, I don't like the swooning adoring legions of fans who are either misguided or pathetically lustful, and I don't like the effect she has on more talented artists. Would anyone else care to add a reason why they dislike Joanna Newsom?