ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joanna Newsom has made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter, thanks to her harp and a voice that is, well, an acquired taste. Her new record is an ambitious triple album of original songs called "Have One On Me."

Our critic Will Hermes says it's her most accessible record yet, and it proves her talent as a songwriter.

(Soundbite of song, "81")

Ms.�JOANNA NEWSOM (Musician): (Singing) I found a little plot of land in the Garden of Eden. It was dirt and dirt is all the same.

WILL HERMES: Twenty-eight-year-old Joanna Newsom comes from a great tradition of visionary California oddballs, from composers Harry Partch and Terry Riley to Frank Zappa and Tom Waits.

Like her forebears, her ambitions run deep and wide, and among other things on her new record, my favorite triple album since The Clash's "Sandinista!", she taps into myths of her American West and the open road.

(Soundbite of song, "Good Intentions Paving Company")

Ms.�NEWSOM: (Singing) Twenty miles left to the shore. Hello, my old country, hello. Stars are just beginning to appear and I have never in my life before been here. And it's my heart, not me, who cannot ply that base conclusion you may write. Watching me sit here bolt upright and cry for no good reason at the eastern sky.

HERMES: "Have One on Me" is less about a mapping a nation, though, than about mapping a heart. It begins with a love song called "Easy," and it ends 17 songs and two hours later with the singer admitting: Easy, I was not.

Joanna Newsom's signature whimsy is just part of the story. Here, lovers confront violence; death and love run off the rails. Suddenly, the kooky, angelic harpist has dirt under her fingernails.

(Soundbite of song, "Jack Rabbits")

Ms.�NEWSOM: (Singing) I was tired of being drunk. My face cracked like a joke. So I swung through here like a brace of jack rabbits with their necks all broke. I stumbled at the door with my boot, and I knocked against the jamb, and I scrabbled at your chest like a mute with my fists of ham.

HERMES: The arrangements are as striking as the lyrics: strings and banjos, harmonies and hand claps, tympanis and tamburas. At one point, Joanna Newsom sets her harp against multitracked voices and brass.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms.�NEWSOM: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

HERMES: And elsewhere, she pairs her harp with a West African kora, conjuring notes like nighttime swarms of fireflies.

(Soundbite of song, "Go Long")

Ms.�NEWSOM: (Singing) I have never seen such a terrible room, gilded with the gold teeth of the women who loved you.

HERMES: Joanna Newsom's music likes to hover in the upper registers, which I suspect is why some people find it grating. This record remedies that somewhat, especially if you listen to it on a sound system that can supply some bass. I think it's her most fully realized and inviting work, but still, "Have One On Me" isn't background music. It demands attention, and it repays it too. Give it time. I think there's no question that it establishes kooky Joanna Newsom as one of the major singer-songwriters of her generation.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Our reviewer is Will Hermes. The new album from Joanna Newsom is called "Have One On Me."

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.