Category: Joanna Newsom

Live review: Joanna Newsom at Orpheum Theatre

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The harpist, pianist and singer, who has crafted a body of work that sounds like none other, stirs fans’ ardor and fills the hall with precisely rendered melodies.

On Saturday at L.A.'s ornate Orpheum Theatre, the downtown venue originally built for Vaudeville shows with a stage that has supported performances by, among many others, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, another singular voice presented timeless inspiration.

Joanna Newsom, a harpist/pianist from Nevada City, California, accompanied by a precise, lyrical five piece band that at various times featured violins, trombone, acoustic guitar, banjo, drums and cowbell, sang a dozen songs on topics including (in no particular order): sunlight, snow, stars, the sea, moonlight, black bears, autumn, gardens, daddy longlegs, wishbones, precious hearts, eyelashes, a darkness that “falls so fast it feels like some sort of mistake,” goldfish-eating foxes, mollusks, peaches, plums, pears, geese, barbers and butcher boys.

The singer, whose last L.A. performance was at Walt Disney Concert Hall, sat before a harp that occupied three times as much space as its player. As at the Disney performance, she spun her fingers across the strings with a driven but graceful intent, like a spider’s legs working to entangle a fly, and the precisely rendered melodies filled the hall. When she changed instruments and sat at the Steinway, which she did throughout the night, Newsom’s straw-colored hair cascaded down to the small of her back while she relayed stories of the pastoral life and the creatures that inhabit it.

Some songs on Saturday night, such as “In California,” stretched to ten minutes and beyond, as Newsom worked to convey an abstract lyrical narrative about the challenges of living away from a lover: “Some nights I just never go to sleep at all,” she sang, “and I stand shaking in the doorway like a sentinel.” Others, like “Inflammatory Writ,” arrived in compact, three minute bursts. Her lyrics are so single-mindedly focused on the natural world that the appearance in lyrics of a “bulletproof car” in “Baby Birch” felt like some sort of alien invasion (even if said vehicle was used to describe the stars above).

She opened her 75-minute set with four songs from her ambitious recent full-length, “Have One on Me,” before weaving in older titles from her previous two albums, “Ys,” from 2006 (which featured arrangements by Van Dyke Parks), and her infectious 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender.” It was delivered via a singing voice that’s as pure is it is dynamic, one that has matured from an at-times grating shriek early in her career into an instrument able to offer a smooth, well-tended tone with measured phrasings and octave-spanning curlicues. At this point feeding her pitch-perfect vocals into an Auto-Tune program would probably cause the software to collapse in on itself.

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On the charts: Johnny Cash, Joanna Newsom make their debuts; Sade still leads

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Last week, country trio Lady Antebellum became the first artist of 2010 to cross the million-sold threshold. Smooth R&B masters Sade should hit that mark by the end of the month, as Epic effort "Soldier of Love" continues to top the U.S. pop chart, selling an additional 126,000 copies in the U.S. this week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. 

To date, "Soldier of Love" has sold 820,000 copies, a total it has reached in just three weeks. Sade's 1994 "Best Of" set is also getting a boost, having returned to the charts and resting at No. 114 this week. The hits collection has sold more than 1.6 million copes.

Meanwhile, Lady Antebellum continues to hold at No. 2, and the Capitol Nashville album rings up an additional 114,000 copies sold, increasing its five-week tally to more than 1.1 million. Johnny Cash's posthumous "American VI: Ain't No Grave" (American Recordings) is the week's top debut, and enters the chart at No. 3 with 54,000 copies sold. 

The prior volume in the series with producer Rick Rubin, "American V: A Hundred Highways," landed at No. 1 when it was released in the summer of 2006. First week sales of the latter topped 88,000 copies, and gave Cash his second No. 1 album on the overall pop chart (the artist has had far more toppers, of course, over on the country chart). 

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

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Joanna Newsom is a hard act to follow. Turn that phrase around in your head for a minute, as you would a tarnished knickknack, or one of Newsom's own lyrics, assembled from fable and casual conversation and just those kinds of clichés. It has two meanings, and both apply.

In her young career, Newsom has burst free of the traditions that inspire her -- visionary California folk-rock, post-Kate Bush femme pop, fairy tales and modernist literature -- to assert a voice that seems totally singular, an end in itself. Her distinctiveness begins with her unusual primary instrument, the pedal harp, and extends to her long and winding song structures, her allusive but hard-to-track lyrics, and a voice that inspires a thousand metaphors (wood sprite, elf, child, chickadee), none quite right.

Newsom's music can't be duplicated. It's also very hard to grasp, despite being pretty and often inviting. Her last album, "Ys," was a song cycle orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks that laid story upon story like the magical text in "The Saragossa Manuscript," touching on life's biggest subjects: desire, death, the natural world's pull on human consciousness. Her new three-disc set goes even further into that subject matter, and is even harder to track.

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