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The Milk-Eyed Mender

Joanna Newsom
The Milk-Eyed Mender
(Drag City)

The Milk-Eyed Mender is a release that came out earlier this year and drew a lot of praise. Based on a couple tracks that I caught playing out of the stereo of a friend between various stops, I simply thought that it wasn't an album I could get into. To say that Joanna Newsom's voice is an aquired taste might be an understatement, but I'm sure there are also those who hear the unique qualities of her voice and they instantly stick as something both heartfelt and original. There's no doubt of the former nor the latter, and in different places I've heard to it referred to in varying degrees as both "child-like" and "munchkin-like."

At any rate, the year progressed and a certain friend kept harping (pun intended?) that it was his favorite disc of the year. Respecting his opinion, I decided to break down and give the entire release a chance. On the first full listen, the voice that I originally found annoying slowly transformed as the songs in the album ran by, starting out as slightly-annoying and ending up as many of the positive qualities I mentioned above. Armed with little more than a harp an a guitar, Newsom has created an album that sounds like it could have been made really any time in the past 30 years or so.

"Bridges And Balloons" opens the disc with cascading harp melodies and whimsical vocals that really set the pace for the disc as Newsom's vocal rise up and go down and all around, sounding like she's just discovered the joys of playing music and is smiling the entire time. That feel continues throughout the first part of the album, and the instrumentation doesn't change much. It's mostly just Newsom and her harp, but the combination of vocal and instrumental melodies that she coaxes out are quite often very infectious. "Sadie" starts out almost shrill but moves into delicate and beautiful passages while "Swansea" starts out subtle and quiet before breaking with slightly-louder passages.

In only a couple places does the album move beyond harp and vocals, and the results are mixed. The piano-driven "Inflammatory Writ" is an almost silly piano-driven piece that lacks the subtlety of the rest of the album while "This Side Of The Blue" mixes in some slide guitar and wurlitzer organ for great effect. Because The Milk-Eyed Mender is a rather simple release musically, though, your enjoyment of it will pretty much completely depend on how much you enjoy the vocals of Newsom. At 12 tracks and over 50 minutes in length, it runs a smidge long in my ears, but it's definitely an intriguing and sometimes beguiling debut from a young and talented artist.

Rating: 7.75