Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Your Harp My Place

Joanna Newsom, Glee Club, Birmingham, Monday November 22nd 2004.

When I arrive at the venue the support band are already playing, cue lots of pseudo types ordering their dacquiris at the bar in self-consciously hushed tones. I have no idea who the band is, and they make no discernible attempt to enlighten me or my fellow latecomers. The usual indie-folk archetypes make up the outfit, though: the studious guy with the plaid shirt; the brunette with the huge dark-rimmed glasses only hipster chicks with mental health issues would ever consider wearing; the guy with the Devendra Banhart-style wild hair who might just break out of his strumming confines and go on a Hulk-like rampage at any minute plus two other guys so non-descript they'd probably never get laid if they weren't in a band. They make acoustic folk music in that same ruminative, melodic style that Low kinda trademarked about six years ago. Pleasant, but a little unremarkable, in the live arena at least: my apologies if they turn out to be your favourite band.

During the interval I read a copy of The Fly in which I find out what happened to The Beatings, who I saw live a couple of years ago but have disappeared into smoke since. I put this down to them working with the notoriously perfectionist producer Kevin Shields (who nearly brought pre-Oasis Creation Records to its knees with the spiralling costs of MBV's 'Loveless' album) but I clearly didn't know the half of it: seems like Shields only agreed to produce the boys on the proviso they'd help him BUILD his new studio, during which time the band have had to rename themselves The Beat-Up following a copyright dispute with an American band over the right to use their original moniker (problems I predicted a few years back). At any rate, we'll see whether all that hod work pays off when their debut album finally emerges next year: it'll either cement their reputation or they'll have to throw in the trowel, I reckon.

Just time then to scan the crowd and note that by and large it's a younger, more metropolitan, and indeed more multicultural crowd than we're used to at The Glee Club where it's more customary to find yourself rubbing shoulders with greying gents with rolled-up copies of Uncut magazine in their back pockets. And then on the count of phwoar, Joanna Newsom arrives on stage, and the first thing to say is that she's intimidatingly pretty and, wearing a corset-style dress with off-the-shoulder straps, she cuts very much the figure of a 'mediaeval babe'. She starts off with an a capella clap-along number which is pretty brave in such a small studio room cramped full of about 150 people breathing down her cleavage (uh, OK, that was just me) but having pulled it off, she can be pretty sure she's got the audience just where she wants them for the rest of the show: spellbound.

I hadn't heard anything of Newsom until this year, she's done some backing vocals on albums I believe, and a few low-key DIY records, but things came to a head with the release of The Milk-Eyed Mender earlier this year on Drag City records. It received considerable acclaim in the US but has had a more mixed reception in this country, with many critics proclaiming it cultural marmite, Newsom's voice firmly placed in the 'love-it-or-hate-it' category. On initial listenings to the record, I find myself a little perplexed by both viewpoints: I don't find her voice stunningly unusual, certainly no more so than Bjork or Regina Spektor, and while I consider the album consistently beguiling, it's essentially quite traditional folk in flavour, certainly not as innovative and/or challenging as either the positive or negative reviews would suggest. In a straight comparison, I would say Regina Spektor's similar-ish 'Soviet Kitsch' has more wit, mischief, melodrama and individuality. But it's difficult to knock a record too hard that, with song titles such as 'Sprout and the Bean'; 'Peach, Plum, Pear' and 'Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie' (try requesting that when you're drunk), not only supplies you with your recommended five servings of fruit and veg per day, but also includes those essential fish oils for a healthy heart and skin. It's the record you can listen to between meals without spoiling your macrobiotic diet, then.

To be fair, though, in the live arena Newsom's prodigious talents are more evident, and it's abundantly clear there's more on offer than simply wholesome home-spun entertainment. Following on from her stand-up a capella routine she sits down at her harp and as she goes through impressive renditions of the songs from her record, you've got to admire the amount of dedication it must require to sing in such a distinctive, passionate manner while playing an instrument as notoriously difficult and unwieldy as a harp. OK, not everybody gets the opportunity to play such an instrument at the age of eight, but it's a level of discipline, determination and virtuosity worth reminding yourself of in the era of get-famous-quick shows like Pop Idol. That's not meant as a backhanded compliment because the content sufficiently matches the technique that the result is an enchanted evening in an intimate venue.

Newsom announces that tonight is the final show of a month-long tour, and as she thanks the audience for their warm reception, maybe the air-conditioning gets in her eye or is that a tear she wipes away from her face? Bless. She comes back for an encore and asks for requests, performs 'The Inflammatory Writ'; 'Cassiopeia' and 'This Side Of The Blue' and then she's gone, and as the lights go up and the bar staff start clearing away, the spell is finally broken.

On the train journey home I finished reading Popular Music by Mikael Niemi a coming-of-age drama in the tradition of 'Cider With Rosie' and 'My Family And Other Animals' but set in northern Sweden near to the Finnish border and with the additional elements of sauna endurance contests, elk-hunting and rock 'n' roll. Think 'Just William' as written by Nick Hornby, with some additional elements of 'magical realism' stirred into the smorgasbord.

The early part of the book is episodic and anecdotal in nature, the combination of low farce; wry observation and good-natured hi-jinks not dissimilar to the style of our very own Scary Duck. As the protagonist gets older and adolescence looms, the book becomes more satisfying as literature, with plenty of interesting and amusing points to make on masculine rituals and the struggle to assert your manliness when you have an artistic persuasion in a small community which covets, above all else, physical prowess and morose stoicism amongst its menfolk. Niemi brings to life a part of the world much neglected by world media and yet there is much that anyone brought up in a rural community on the eve of the multimedia age will relate to. It's this combination of otherness and universality that lies at the heart of the book's warm and inclusive appeal. That, and the Finnish girls, of course, who, somewhat predictably, get everywhere.


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