The Milk-Eyed Mender
ome albums should just come with honest warnings. “Don’t waste your money on this shit, get their last one instead”; “The lead singer is a pedophile and all of these songs are actually about pedophilia”; “Your friends are full of shit, this band sucks”; “RIYL: Shrill, esoteric female singer/songwriters that play harp and sound like they’re ten years old with a possible, though not certain, mental problem”. The latter of these, the only thing I can think of placing on Joanna Newsom’s debut full-length that even comes close to giving any new-comers to her “art” an idea of what to expect, may seem a little harsh to those who still have no idea who she is. Despite this, if you spend just twenty seconds with The Milk-Eyed Mender, you’ll be brought up to speed.
Newsom does indeed sound like a ten year old—she is, in reality, in her early twenties—and though I’m certain to absolutely love this record you’d need a high threshold for the absurd, there is, if you wish to look hard enough, a whimsical charm to her vocal delivery. Appositely enough, what she’s singing is just as child-like as her vocal timbre, as most of the lyrics deal with an artsy, fairy-tale style storytelling that adds another layer of coyness. The resultant effect is a ridiculous and surreal experience.
A classically trained harpist, Newsom manages to give most every song on the record an equally unique, sparse arrangement. Noah Georgeson’s rather straight-forward production does well to let the songs, usually consisting of a single instrument, carry themselves. When it all falls into place, like on the excellent “Sprout and the Bean”, “Sadie”, “The Book of Right-On”, “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” and the unusually jovial “Inflammatory Writ”, it can result in an EP’s worth of material that is strong enough to belie the awkwardness of her voice and, in the case of the latter two tracks, some of the best singer/songwriter material to be released so far this year.
But when it fails, and at times it stumbles badly—“Peach, Plum, Pear” and “Three Little Babies” being the finest examples—Milk-Eyed Mender ventures into disastrous territory, putting far too much weight on the voice and away from a decent, or even listenable, melody. “Three Little Babies” sounds like a terrible Neko Case impersonation set to a tepid piano backing, while “Peach, Plum, Pear’s” promising opening quickly makes room for a downright grating “na na na” chorus; even the brief Chan Marshall-esque bridge isn’t able to revive it.
It’s all pretty hit-and-miss stuff with a tendency for extremes. Newsom’s flashes of brilliance as one hell of a songwriter & storyteller complicates the situation, however, setting up Mender to be one of the more divisive releases of the year. On one hand, you’ve got those that are going to take to the unique quality of her voice (on most tracks, at least), the artfully esoteric storybook lyrics and cutesy arrangements while others will get about a minute into the first track before laughing and turning it the fuck off. It’s still too early to determine whether Newsom is promising, if just for her ability to stick out, or if she’s just completely batshit insane. It should be interesting to see where she goes next.
Reviewed by: Scott Reid
Reviewed on: 2004-05-05