Tuesday, April 13, 2010

She and She

I am not usually a fan of female singers however, recently, I have found myself drawn to quite a few. Some women extremely so: Victoria Legrand (Beach House); some in passing: Neko Case and Jenny Lewis; some in simple pleasure: Zooey Deschanel (She & Him); and some barely at all: Joanna Newsom.

So, when the releases of Newsom’s latest album, Have One On Me and She and Him’s, Volume 2, coincided with each other, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to not compare the two necessarily, but to offer parallel viewpoints on interacting with each album. For, as I hope you will see, one of these albums does not trump the other in any direct manner per say, rather they seem to serve as complimentary wholes to each other.  These are two women with strong voices, one perhaps more singular than the other, who have set up a vision of America in two very different ways with each having varying levels of success.  However, at the core, these albums are both American in every connotation of that word, which is to say, imperfect and open to many identifications.

First, is She and Him’s Volume 2.  This is an album that is entirely about maintaining one overall posture and mood.  The first song, “Thieves,” announces this fact perfectly well. There seems to be a thin haze in the production keeping the listener away from Deschanel’s swooning vocals, M. Ward’s  tasteful string arrangements and the near flamenco rhythm that is straight from a 1950’s prom (see “Under the Sea Dance” from Back to the Future).  This is the posture that Deschanel will proceed to hold for the remainder of the album, which is the idea of a neo-Patsy Cline, the woman singer for those new diners around eastern and western seaboard cities (see Diner).  And there is no one better than Deschanel to try to hold this posture. Her voice is full of confidence but can seem meek, bashful and hurt, as the song requires.  She may never be able to get away from her role as Summer in 500 Days of Summer, however that identity is used to great affect in her singing, whether intended or not.  The production keeps her away from you, just as the character was kept away from the protagonist and the actual audience (maybe to that film’s detriment).  But the one thing we can see are those wide blue eyes and we can hear that soft round voice that wraps the song in whatever allure she has been able to perpetuate through music and film.

Much of this effect is achieved through M. Ward’s production.  In the third song “Don’t Look Back,” Deschanel’s lead vocal is surrounded by backup chamber vocals and Pet Sounds/Wall of Sound drumming that makes the song seem like a cleanly edited 1950’s or 1960’s jingle. The songs are infectious and in fact, they give Deschanel’s vocals a smiling quality; it is almost as if she is smiling back on a whole tradition of music, which is early rock n’ roll, rock-a-billy and the country of Patsy Cline.  The issue is that by the time you are halfway through the album and have hummed more than a few hooks, you can’t help but feel that the songs lack a certain dynamicism that the originals contain.  That may be an easy sentiment to express: old better than new.  Most pompous and curmudgeonly rock critics express that in a few too many reviews and I am not a rock critic. However, when you are pointing so directly at a tradition of music, you have to meet that tradition head on in order to get your proper say in, to have your voice come through the mix that you enjoy so much.

That is not to say that Deschanel and Ward do not make the effort to meet the tradition head-on.  The sixth song, “Me and You,” conjures up an image of that moment when, walking by yourself, the evening has set in; streetlamps come on and the warmth of night feels comforting on your skin; you see people passing on the street, a child’s shout, everything is OK.  This is an album about postures and the seventh song, “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” is the perfect evidence that Deschanel knows every inch and nuance of the posture she is holding.  Her voice lilts just where it is supposed to on the choruses, becomes short and conversational at points during the spring voices, all the while following along perfectly with M. Ward’s country shuffle.

There are also surprises in many of these songs.  The second song (and single) “In The Sun,” at first seems like a complete summary of Volume 1, until M. Ward inserts a strange guitar flourish that appears right before each chorus and, in its strange way, becomes a bit of a hook itself.  The ninth song, “I’m Gonna Make it Better” pulls off the classic Beatle effect of having a chorus that takes a turn that surprises the listener from the initial verse.  Ward plays some borderline late/post-Beatles George Harrison slide guitar throughout the entire song.  They also insert a playful third section to the song that comes out of nowhere but seems to fit directly in with the remainder of the mood.  It is all concise and clean, but surprising at the same time.

The whole album is enjoyable from beginning to end.  There are no week songs from beginning to end.  The arrangements are all precise, neat and at many times interesting and unexpected.  However, in the end, you find yourself drawn back to that image the music conjures up of an easy warm evening with streetlights, passing strangers and a child’s shout.  While you are there, you have to think that something about the ease of the situation that isn’t quite right.  Those diners that the first song “Thieves” might play in, like so many of Patsy Cline’s did, were not so often filled with ease as they were with strong, unpleasant coffee, and a hard smell of fried eggs and bacon. But maybe from the perspective of modern times, a morning in a diner with swooning vocals can provide is with that level of peace that we may often be hard pressed to find.

Yet, in the end, you still admire Deschanel for her ability to hold her balance and posture so well throughout the entire album.  You have to, because while to try to stand by her side, you wonder whether you are able to do the same since you’d most likely get uneasy at some point and fall.

Newsom’s Have One on Me is a different beast, but one that provides its own privileged looks into American life along different points of the highway.  It is a triple album, so immediately, you know there may be points where the material is stretched. On this album, Newsom is very pleased to disrupt moods and to have the general flow of a song take an abrupt turn.  The lead-off track, “Easy” makes this desire pretty clear.  Newsom’s striking voice is paired up with cinematic strings, until a piano enters, then the piano builds and is joined by thumping drums that are right out of a prog rock track.  Throughout the song, about four different melodies start and then give way to a completely different one. Instruments appear and surprise you, like the horns that arrive late into the song.  The same is true, maybe even more so, for the following title track. What “Have One On Me” evidences is the ability that Newsom’s songs have to remain rootsy and feel like a window into some anachronistic backwoods America, while at the same time containing complicated string and horn arrangements.

These sonically complex songs are also balanced with quiet, mournful songs, touched with Newsom’s signature harp.  “Esme” is an excellent example of this type of song.  Newsom’s voice sings sweetly and plainly and not full of gimmickery as she can come off elsewhere on the album.  There is a sincerity here that is missing in other places.  This track is Saturday morning on a weekend trip to a cabin in the Adirondacks.  You rise from your bed, your lover still laying in the sheets, and walk to the window. There is a bright mist among the pines, but a sense of melancholy as you look through the glass because the weekend is already over at that point and you will have to be moving on to the next point.

Movement is captured extremely well on this album.  However, there are also times where Newsome overdoes it.  The middle section of the album seems to force its surprises on the listener.  This is most evident on “Baby Birch,” which begins in the vein of a traditional folk song – longing in tone and delivery. This is a welcome discovery after the shifting moods in the first five songs.  Initially, “Baby Birch” shares that virtue with traditional folk songs, which is the means of communication between people against the darkness in life.  But the song does not remain content and turns into a strange march filled with drums, claps and chanting.  Sonically, it sounds terrific, but it ruins the initial mood of the song rather than adding to it as a change of pace.

It would be hard to say that Newsom was attempting to write each of these songs with an idea of movement in mind.  However, as a listener, it is hard to ignore.  On “Does Not Suffice,” specifically, Newsom describes putting away objects into boxes.  The song itself is elegaic and feels like packing and moving on.  One can picture a hot afternoon in May, moving out of an apartment you had on a sidestreet in a small upstate town.  This is another instance where Newsom remains sincere and it works to her benefit.

The album is not completely separated into songs that are simple and sincere and good and those that are too busy and bad.  Perhaps the two strongest songs on the album are “Good Intentions Paving Company” and “Go Long.”  In “Go Long,” Newsom’s voice sounds more womanly than anywhere else on the album while she is singing about “the loneliness of you mighty, mighty men.”  Newsom paints an image of a small town with a sugar mill and fire pits.  The objects and the sentiment of the song are completely real and you can see a sepia toned town with workers shuffling past the fire pits to the mills.  The music remains relatively simple with the harp dominating overall.  The picking becomes more intricate towards the end and Newsom’s voice breaks from its simple womanly singing to peals of pleading, which elsewhere can become grating or gimmicky.  Here, she achieves a balance as she does on “Good Intentions Paving Company” with its driving piano that makes the listener immediately determined.  Newsom’s vocals are intricately layered and harmonized while she sings about the “tilt of this strange nation/and the will to remain for the duration” and provides some of the most literate and expansive lyrics since Dylan.  The percussion below the words is inventive and propulsive.  This song captures all of Newsom’s powers working together as one.  There are hooks all over the place, the lyrics are sincere but she uses here voice in strange dynamics as another instrument but she never grates.  Again, this is a song about moving and how our emotions and relationships are tied up in that movement.  Even the propulsive rhythm slows down and the song becomes holy, pensive and hymnal, but even then, there is some out of step percussion that steps in.  However, it makes you aware as a listener and the surprise is welcome.  The song feels important at every step of the way.

She should have finished the album with “Occident,” which is the closest a song on the album comes to a traditional ballad.  It is just Newsom, a piano and lazy, quiet drums that are used perfectly for atmosphere.  This is a song that is searching for redemption and remorse.  Like, “Good Intentions Paving Company,” it achieves an effect of seeming important, as though at any instance you listen to it, something profound is occurring in your life -  you feel compelled to look sideways into the sun and let the light fall across your cheek as though you are staring down something you can’t quite make out, you feel a poignancy you aren’t quite sure of.

That is what America is about: a poignancy we aren’t quite aware of.  Whether we are moving, like Newsom’s work on Have One On Me or smiling in place at a tradition of diners and highway anthems like Deschanel on Volume 2.  Newsom looks sideways at a bright object and makes music that suggests and unknown profundity, while Deschanel looks straight on a tangible object but finds it hard to articulate why it will remain important other than to provide us with a welcome posture and a high-level of enjoyment in reverie.  These are both imperfect albums from an imperfect nation that struggles to articulate itself, whether on the move or sitting at home, playing those albums from the basement – at each instance, we are groping at what is gold.

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