cartwheels into your heart

Thursday, May 27, 2004

I'm not sure how I missed Eppy's clap clap blog until now -- he seems to be connected to all the right folks -- but I'm really impressed with the last two months of posts I've read. Here’s a great post that encapsulates much of what I’ve been feeling about politics for the last year or so (at least since the Iraq imbroglio began). And then this gem, about the Built to Spill song, "Carry the Zero" -- which I like not just because he recognizes that it's far and away the best song on Keep It Like a Secret, but because the entire post (all thirteen paragraphs!) is a strictly musical (i.e., not lyrical) exegesis of the tune. It’s a little too theory-heavy in a couple of places, which is always the danger of an approach like this, as it tends to alienate non-musicians -- but not enough critics are even attempting to write about how music actually sounds and what goes into it that it's ultimately a small complaint.

Azita, "On the Road" (from Enantiodromia, Drag City, 2003)

So Azita Youssefi used to be in a couple of punk/no-wave bands, the Scissor Girls and Bride of No-No, but now performs as a lounge piano act that's been compared most frequently to the deliciously slick Steely Dan. Which is pretty much all you had to say to get me interested. As it turns out, though, I first came across Azita, as with her labelmate Joanna Newsom, in a live context -- opening for the comedian Todd Barry. And she didn't quite hit me right away. Her songs seemed to meander, and she had a peculiar way of overnunciating every word in her husky voice, swallowing all the Ls on the line "WELL, I think that I will GOOOOWW" ("Wasn’t in the Bargain")[1]. But this was still fairly compelling, in its own way, and so when I heard later that my friend Eric Z. liked her, I dashed off an e-mail: "How can you get past the voice??" Eric wrote back: “Well, yeah, she even sometimes strains for high notes she can't hit, but then again, so does Neil Young on Tonight's the Night and that's one of my favorite albums ever." Not to mention there was something sticky about those sprightly, tangled piano lines, packed with jazz chords. And so it took a little while but I fell for her. Enantiodromia[2] is ultimately an inconsistent album -- there are two nice Satie-like instrumentals that nevertheless feel out of place -- but when Azita fires on a song like "On the Road," with a melody that slips and jumps around and catapults into a fantastic solo break, you really don't mind the voice. In fact, it kind of grows on you.[3]

[1] I especially like Sonia Pereira's description of Azita’s voice as "cavernous, like a mermaid singing from the depths."

[2] Her first album, which I picked up instead of the newer Life on the Fly (with its Countdown to Ecstasy-aping cover) only because it was used.

[3] Although I had a somewhat worrying thought recently when I realized that the voices of both Azita and Joanna Newsom were not only "unconventional" but blatant and unrestrained, in a way that wasn’t so different from certain untrained "outsider" musicians like, say, BJ Snowden. (And for that matter, isn't it weird how preoccupied Newsom is with all that old-timey shit?!)

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

At some point recently, I realized that the two contemporary musicians with whom I’ve been obsessed this year, and the performers of the two classic 1970s songs I’ve kept on repeat in the last couple of months, have all been women. Which isn’t an alarming insight or anything (OMG, what does that say about me?!), but the fact that I noticed a common thread at all made me think that it was time, perhaps, to post here again. (The downtime at work helps, too.)

So here we go: the first installment of Women We Love, Spring 2004 Edition. (More to come soon, I promise.)

Joanna Newsom, “Bridges and Balloons” (from The Milk-Eyed Mender, Drag City, 2004)

So I’m waiting for Will Oldham, who I don’t even like all that much (I See a Darkness is the only Bonnie “Prince” Billy record that doesn’t bore me) but whose stark Southern-gothic shtick, coupled with the small gallery space we’re in, holds the promise for an unusually intimate show. Which would be nice. I know nothing about his opener, Joanna Newsom, but when this girlish woman in a peasant dress takes the stage, smiles nervously, and props up her harp (!), I’m breathless for the next forty minutes. Part of it’s the novelty of the harp, sure, as I can’t keep my eyes off her intricate finger work; she picks higher notes like a guitar and plucks lower ones like an upright bass, all at once. Part of it’s that I’m a fool for the sound of finger-picking, period: close your eyes and it’s just as abstract and trancelike as the best minimalist composition. (I’m amazed, sometimes, at how I hate so much folk music in the three-chords-strummed tradition but love similar stuff when it’s finger-picked. The outright jazz flourishes on some of Newsom’s songs don’t hurt, either.) A lot of it, though, is Newsom’s delivery. Like a child, she murmurs one moment and shouts the next; her voice doesn’t have much depth, but when it spills out, it’s unabashedly generous and heartfelt. There’s something quite precious about all this, of course, and I haven’t even mentioned lyrics like “a thimblesworth of milky moon” or song titles like “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie.” But the sort of precocious literariness Newsom puts on display seems less a bid for cleverness (cf. every English major’s new favorite band, the Decemberists) and more an honest evocation of an interior world – especially when it belongs to a bright and dreamy young folkie from Nevada City, California. The line that gets me tonight, however, which I sing to myself for the next few days, is a simple one (albeit antiquated in its way), from the equally melancholy and hopeful “Bridges and Balloons”: “Oh my love, oh, it was a funny little thing.” Indeed. Oldham, by the way, ends up being mostly forgettable, but I’ve already experienced the intimate performance I sought, and startlingly so.