Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
he comparisons will be inevitable but Josephine Foster sounds the way those who dislike Joanna Newsom describe The Milk-Eyed Mender—minus the implicit naiveté, less the delicate rasp, but with a wider breadth of palette and a penchant for vocal role-playing. She is difficult to approach and, compared to her tour alumnae, Newsom and Banhart, more difficult to like at first sight (it took me three). Listeners unable to get past the anachronism of the new indie-folk will find further ammunition in this record because Foster appears to traffic almost exclusively in Renaissance revivalist clichés, both musically and lyrically, with the addition of intriguingly sympathetic perversions of the same. Clichés are not always a bad thing if you can put them to use for some heavy lifting; most of the time they're what makes pop music work. Part of the success of Hazel Eyes lies in the fact that songs are somehow wiser than their mechanics and the weight of their patronage. The other part is Foster's layered, 'wild woman in rags' vocals that kick you in the stomach and force a stance straightaway. Listeners unable to understand the brouhaha around Joanna Newsom should not come within a bonny green sheep meadow’s length of her.
Foster has released records and toured under the monikers Born Heller (her “years long” collaboration with bassist Jason Ajemian, recorded by Paul Oldham), The Children’s Hour (with Andy Bar, asked by Billy Corgan to open for Zwan on their first world tour), and JF & the Supposed (a borderline folk rock opera project acknowledging her professed influences Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and Patti Smith). Self-produced in Madison, Wisconsin, Foster plays every instrument on Hazel Eyes, including (in addition to the usual guitars, harps, and dulcimers) wooden spoons, cittarina, kazoo, sandblocks, black cat (?!) and “a box of wire ties.” In spite of an unusual acoustic arsenal, many of the instrumentals are merely pleasant, well-rendered but unremarkable folk of a slightly watery Perhacs ‘n Pentangle acid-madrigal variety. Still, if some of the music is 'middle of the road' psych-folk, at least half of the collection takes unexpected chances that pay off. There are frequently soiled and distressed edgings to the laciest songs. Simple, hazy, rambling instrumentals are frequently modified by the end to be enveloped by Debussy-inspired impressionisms, or to give space for bristling instrumental solos by positively unidentifiable instruments. A kazoo solo on "The golden wooden tone" sounds as if Foster has mated her voice at its most howling and wild with an oud. Such events are plentiful (though perhaps not enough) and more striking for their nakedness, more shocking for their appearance in a context that both embraces and rejects them. It feels right, it sounds wrong. It's not as if psychedelic folk music the first time around failed to embrace odd sounds, but with minor exceptions most first-wave psych-folk experiments seemed less in thrall with the sounds themselves...noise always seemed like a second class citizen, a backdrop, fashion accessories.
However contrived certain bits of the folk template may be, Foster's voice is a slap-in-the-face, clarion mutation of the mold and it is this confluence, if nothing else, that holds the attention and compels repeated returns (if only to answer conclusively how one feels about the whole wyrd stew). There is a deliberate, controlled recklessness about her voice similar in manic energy to many bright lights of the NYC early 80’s No-Wave scene (populated with a horde of disenchanted classically trained musicians). An “opera school dropout” from Northwestern University of Illinois in Chicago (and all the things that 'dropout' from such a program implies about talent and rejection and rugged individualism and following your star, etc, etc), Foster turned to the more earthen and earth-bound edges in response to her fallout with the institution. Foster's voice is Shirley Collins, Vashti Bunyan, and Joan Baez, as if liberated by the furthest flung margins of Patty Waters quasi-Pentecostal jazz stylings. But while other opera-related peers Coco Rosie put their gifts under the employ of something more like pure pastiche and outsider cabaret, Foster's control over her voice and musical training is put to use in order to lovingly 'queer' the bedrock elements of an otherwise overripe form, keeping them more or less intact.
The lyrics, as with much 60s psych folk, tend to mimic classical religious and the 'high literary' poetic forms of what I refer to as the “My Little Golden Book of Victorian Children’s Verse” school of lyrics. But rather than drag the record down, the rote mawkishness of the lyrics enable Foster to perform imaginative feats of post-structural magic: repeatedly standing in the same river twice, she pays homage to 20th century folk’s patronage with great fidelity, all the while chipping at the cornerstones of its homey etiquette with a voice liberated by rock-opera bombast and a strong, self-twisted femininity that, if an archetype in rock, is somewhat absent in folk's family tree.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-04-13