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Album review: Joanna Newsom, "Have One on Me"

By Allison Stewart

Singer-harpist Joanna Newsom is the reigning queen of freak folk, medieval lass division. A nimble lyricist with an elfin voice and an air of gentle befuddlement, Newsom is the most anachronistic of indie superstars, one who would seem better suited to plucking front-parlor chamber pieces in some "There Will Be Blood"-era oil rush town.

Newsom's albums are arcane and lovely, made to be pored over and interpreted. "Have One on Me" is her magnum opus, a three-disc set being likened to a freak-folk "Sandinista," though it feels more like a musical "Ulysses."

(Plenty to digest over two hours, after the jump.)

"Have One" combines the best elements of Newsom's past two releases, 2004's spartan folk offering "The Milk-Eyed Mender" and its densely orchestrated follow-up, 2006's "Ys." The nine-minutes-plus "Kingfisher" would have fit nicely on "Ys"; the jazzy, jaunty "Good Intentions Paving Company" sounds like what would happen if the renaissance fair had a disco; the mournful, spectral "In California" emphasizes Newsom's great debt to Joni Mitchell, with lyrics as simple and as perfect ("I don't belong to anyone / My heart is heavy as an oil drum") as any Newsom has ever written.

Newsom's singing, often a barrier to access, has grown more natural and assured; she no longer sounds like a 16th-century kewpie doll. But "Have One on Me" can still be rough sledding for all but the most devoted of listeners. With 18 songs spread across two hours, there's a lot of determined eccentricity in one place, no matter how happy the result.

Joanna Newsom will perform at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on March 22 and 23.

Recommended tracks:
"Kingfisher," "Jackrabbits," "In California"

By David Malitz  |  February 23, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Quick spins  | Tags: Joanna Newsom  
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