2004, 10-07 Joanna Newsom, Ghostface, The Go! Team and Devendra Banhart

Joanna Newsom
The Go! Team
Devendra Banhart
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Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender

The first thing I thought of when I heard Joanna Newsom sing was, "wow, Lil from Rugrats got her own solo album." Indeed, her voice is her gimmick, main draw and biggest draw all depending on who you ask. She sounds like Bjork meets Loretta Lynn - and 10 years old. For you theatre folks, she sounds like Little Sally from Urinetown (U of C Pride). Interesting voices are always useful to a singer to set them apart from the crowd, but at the same time you're going to turn off a lot of your potential listeners who, for one reason or another, cannot stand your voice.

And, like you'd expect, Newsom's voice is jarring. It gets in the way of the music because the whole time you're sitting there thinking of just how crazy her voice is. You think, "is this what she sounds like or she affecting her voice to sound like this?" and "gosh, this is weird" and "man, Rugrats was a pretty cool show." The actual music, though is less noticeable. It's mostly very simple folky instrumental pieces, and by simple, I mean incredibly sparse. I don't think more than two instruments are ever playing at the same time on the album, but the range is huge: from harp to harpsichord, classical guitar to slide guitar. Get that: she plays the freakin harp.

After repeated listenings, the fascination of Newsom's voice tends to go away. You start noticing things like the possibility this is a country album in a very convincing disguise. You wish that if Newsom was affecting her voice, that she would stop. On "Peach, Plum, Pear", (which incidentally includes some wonderful overdriven vocals on an album with almost zero effects) you can catch her sing normally for about 2 seconds when she goes into her lower register, and it sounds fantastic. If it's her real voice, there's nothing she can do, but otherwise I think she'd do better dropping it. But real or not, it doesn't make a difference in the long run: it's the dealbreaker that the entire album (and Newsom's entire career) depends on.

For me, after several listenings, I am still slightly on the fence. As obvious as it is, the faux-aren't-I-just-the-cutest-thing innocence her voice has mixed with a harp still makes me slightly giddy, like life is simple once again. Other times it sounds like an annoying brat from Kentucky wailing along with her favorite Nashville albums. But overall, if you get used to it, you can really get into it - the album's saving grace is that it has some depth to it.

Never have a I seen something fall so firmly in the burn category. Forget the Parent Advisory stickers, they should put warnings on this album.

I heard a Joanna Newsom song once and the vocals turned me right off. I wasn't looking forward to coming back. I don't know what happened in the intervening time, but... y'know, Bjork's voice used to bother me too, before it took me over. And Newsom sounds like Bjork at maybe age eleven, if she'd been born in Alabama.

So yeah. I think this is the first album in even this eclectically-scored mix that features a harp, particularly as an integral instrument (Newsom plays it herself on most of these tracks.) The harp-driven songs are lovely as anything, and Newsom's lyrics are pretty wonderful. "I killed my dinner with karate / kick 'em in the face, taste the body / shallow work is the work that I do", she sings on "The Book Of Right-On", a song that threatens to become a general favorite of mine, which uses nothing but harp and something that sounds like an upright electric bass to weave a spell. There's something weirdly Japanese about this song, from the childishness of her voice to the spare, springy tension of the backing track. Also in the thick naturalistic metaphors she employs. It's southern gothic but in a cute way -- you can see her running with elk in some non-local Miyazaki forest primeval.

And then she shifts to keyboards, and nobody could mistake it for Japanese anymore. She channels a hyper-literate Dolly Parton on "Inflammatory Writ", which has an uncanny musical theatre feel, and an understated humor about it which in part stems from the rhymes, which makes me happy because it reminds me of the Magnetic Fields. I enjoy the harp songs more, which tend to be less country and more indie, but all the songs here have interesting chord changes and superb lyrics. And her voice knits it all together, its occasional harshness working well against the quiet prettiness of the instrumentation. "And the signified buttheads with the signifiers / and we all fall down slackjawed to marvel at words", she sings -- and if you know me, you know I'm sold at that point, and threatening to become a fan.

Some of it is a little too slow -- in particular "En Gallop", which has too little variation and too little momentum to sustain its five-minute length, and "Three Little Babes", which has a medieval narrative to go with its old timey harmonies but which doesn't do much to hold my interest. But most of the tracks here throw something in to mix things up. Listen to the riff on "Peach Plum Pear", for example... the synth (?) harpsichord seems to follow a standard four-chord progression, but it stops on the way to incorporate an odd, pentatonic flutter, and eventually drops into a minimal pattern that could've come off a dance track before restoring itself. Even when the chords are simple on her harp she varies the way she arpeggiates them.

Oddly I came away from this album wishing Joanna had stretched herself a little more musically. I think if she was willing to orchestrate her songs a little more (note the particular success of the one track with a real bassline) she could be a force to be reckoned with on the larger music scene. But her lyrics alone get me through here, and the aching prettiness of some of the music is icing on the cake. Buy.

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Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album

Remember before I was talking about not liking hip-hop? That I really hated the "bitchez'n'hos" rap? This is the kind of shit I haaaaate.

Crime 1: A self-indulgent "interview" section where Ghostface gets to write interview questions to ask himself: "How you gonna do it for the people on the streets??"; "What do you think about those fake ass gangstas?"; "Why don't you roll with big bodyguards, you know, like the other guys?" and a bunch of other shit.
Defense: One of the questions is "Hey, there's a new insurance company now called AFLAC with a fuckin' duck."

Crime 2: A horrible "hot tub" skit.

Crime 3: A lack of substance. This album makes the De La Soul album look like the Kanye West album. This album just washes over me and, like I said, it just sounds like "bitchez'n'hos" over and over again. Oh, rock has the same problems (80% of Led Zepplin lyrics), but fuck, at least make this shit interesting.

Crime 4: "Boy get yo lazy ass up so you can go to the store and get some flour and some vegetable oil so I can fry some goddamn chicken, and don't forget to get the cards so I can whoop y'all ass in some spades!"
Defense: "Boy get yo lazy ass up so you can go to the store and get some flour and some vegetable oil so I can fry some goddamn chicken, and don't forget to get the cards so I can whoop y'all ass in some spades!"

Defense: A song that's a schizophrenic argument, with the rapper quitting halfway through the verse and berated for his laziness.
Crime 5: The next song has a chorus that is completely out-of-tune crap and has some bullshit about "clean undies".

Defense: Wutang is for the kids

I have no idea what this album is doing up so high on the list. Every single hip-hop album before this one was better. I don't know why it's even on the list. Skip this unless you need to have something from a member of Wutang. Get the Kanye West album instead.

If I squint I can see the merit here.

So Ghostface is generally acknowledged as the only MC from the wu-tang clan who is still a) alive and b) producing relevant music. Relevant may be pushing it. He's smarter than your average hardcore east-coast rapper, and his beats are very nice indeed, ranging from sampled oldschool soul to beat-driven minimalism, organic to angular and back. But there's too much idiot sex and violence in here, too much gangster crap, just too much of the vulgar and dumb for me to enjoy it. This music wasn't made for me.

When he's storytelling (on solid old-school tracks like "Run") he's engaging, and he has definite skills on the mic - when he wants to put on the speed and show off he can, and he never lets the beat get the better of him. The skits are well-produced, and some of them I like a lot, like the slice-of-life "Keisha" and the poignant "The Letter", which says a lot with an old song and crumpling paper. I like Ghostface best when he's talking about love, cause it makes him thoughtful and tones down his viciousness -- "Save Me Dear" and "Tooken Back", two funky-yet-tender songs about long-term relationships, are definite high points for me. Maybe they wouldn't stick out as much if his persona on the rest of the album wasn't so unappealing (the man seems incapable of talking without appending 'and shit' to every other sentence,) but hey, I like. You can go overboard, of course. The album closer, "Love", is overgrown with layers of backing soul vocals that make what otherwise could have been an affecting catalogue of the effects of love in Ghostface's life saccharine.

This is probably really good as gangster rap goes. But I don't like gangster rap. Full stop. That doesn't make me a good reviewer for this album, but I can't recommend that you burn or buy it when I wouldn't. Skip.

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The Go! Team: Thunder Lightning Strike

Bands that have exclamation points inside their name always make me a little uneasy. I mean, this is your band, this is the name you have chosen to represent you, and you threw in a slightly wacky feature that you are stuck with, and people are forced to use if they want to spell your band name correctly. The only appropriate use I have seen for exclamation points in a band name is in goofy 80s-style dance bands. So this is what I expected going into The Go! Team.

It turns out that this is a set of instrumental rock/pop/electronic compositions, and listening to the first one, "Panther Dash", it felt like this was going to be just some band playing chords. But my mind was changed when I hopped on my bike running a little late to work and "Panther Dash" came on while I was pedaling as fast as I could. It was perfect, as if this was the soundtrack meant for my life at the moment. I was the king of the bicycle circuit at that moment. This, people, is the indie music version of the Rocky theme.

Just like with Newsom, the more I kept listening, the more natural it sounded. These are all excellent scores with a throwback feel to them. "Retro" isn't quite the right word because of all the connotations it brings up. This is more in the vein of 80's child nostalgia (though this album isn't 80's), so kind of like watching old Sesame Street episodes from the 70's. "Feelgood by Numbers" has a slightly honky tape-noise filled piano playing a number Schroder might've played. "Junior Kickstart" sounds like a B-side from the horns that did the Hawaii 5-0 song. "Friendship Update" sounds like it's from 70's childrens television, like "Schoolhouse Rock" or something. "Bottle Rocket" has that same brass section playing the theme song for some soap opera.

But nostalgic style isn't all The Go! Team brings to the table. "The Power is On" is a playground chant set to a bombastic music-score brass-and-piano sound. "Get It Together", a song that grew on me, has a wonderful sound mostly their own and features a recorder melody line. All the songs on here are wonderful, and they just feel like they fit in. They're the kind of songs you want playing in the orchestra that follows you around playing your current musical score or theme song. They're catchy, they're a bit poppy but rough around the edges, and the production is absolutely beautiful. Someone with an analog fetish made this record, and it works. The drums are over-compressed and overdriven in that hip electronica way. The whole thing is coated in a sheet of noise, but not mud, more like a noise of excitement. That takes a talented producer and engineer.

So the question now is can one fault The Go! Team for being derivative and overly nostalgic? After all I accused the Loretta Lynn album of being too dated. But in this case I feel that in this case, it's simply a matter of genre. These people like making music they like, and if it sounds like the scratchy LP I listened to when I was 5, I say more power to them. It starts getting derivative when you start importing things wholesale, and The Go! Team doesn't do this. The 70's style of composition is complemented by more modern guitar playing (check out the simple barre chords on "Panther Dash"), electronic beats, 80's keyboard sounds, and 90's beats. They combine all these, creating a sound they want to emulate, aim to craft the album in that image, and nail it.

This is catchy, well-made, fun, and in my opinion honest music. Buy this sucker.

...weird. Another album with a 70s fetish and really questionable production decisions. And it's got the same problem with interspersing moments of sheer brilliance with stuff that kinda works and kinda doesn't. Other than that the Go! Team are about as far away from Dungen as it is possible to be-- where they are, though, is kind of hard to describe.

This music was made to be played through a fuzzy transistor radio out on a street where the fire hydrant's broken on a really hot summer day, preferably in Philadelphia or thereabouts. There's music on here that wouldn't sound that out of place on the soundtrack of a Charlie Brown movie. The general idea is that you take some old television theme music and you let a DJ with a bin full of cheer squad samples and a very enthusiastic but not very tight indie rock band take a swing at it. Sometimes this works absolutely brilliantly -- sometimes not so much. An aura of school spirit hangs around the whole album, though. As background music I doubt this could fail to cheer you up.

On the headphones certain things stand out. First of all, the album is mixed in an intentionally lo-fi way, which on certain tracks (like the opener, "Panther Dash" amounts to static and fuzz scattered all over the soundscape. That song, which would be a fine, chugging, Pixies-playing-surf number otherwise, sounds like a home recording, and that doesn't serve it very well. The sampled sirens mixed way back work, but I wish the instruments in the foreground were clearer and didn't distort. And I wish -- and this is true for the entire album -- that they had a better drummer. I don't know if it's the flat sound he's getting out of his kit or his repetitive fills but he weighs down a lot of these tracks by spreading out all over the sonic landscape and filling it with mush. The best songs on here avoid this problem by augmenting him with electronic beats which have a consistency that drives the music in a way that his live playing doesn't.

Also, the less said about the harmonica player the better. Yeesh.

These problems really dominate the record until track four, "The Power Is On", which sounds like a cheerleading squad crashing into a 70s cop show at high speed, and just kicks copious amounts of ass. The drummer is augmented by handclaps but pulls out his best work anyway, and the whole thing just spins through at such speed that you forget about the recording quality. In fact, what registers as a weakness elsewhere on the album works here as a strength. The fuzz seems appropriate because there's so much going on that it overwhelms your desire to pick out individual threads. (Did a rap go by there?) It's followed by my favorite track on the album, "Get It Together", which has massively overdriven prerecorded beats trading blows with a massively overdriven drummer while the DJ scratches and an insanely peppy melody is played on a bunch of freakin' recorders. This is followed by a guitar/keyboard part that could have been lifted intact from the late 60s. Excellent samples and a DJ-solo breakdown at the end puts this one over the top for me. Ten points!

The rest of the album never quite hits the heights of those two songs, but there's some interesting stuff going on. The first twenty seconds of "Junior Kickstart" sound exactly like early Sonic Youth, but then the sampled horns roll in and we're suddenly in cop show mode again. I would wager that this is a stylistic transition never before seen, and as the rest of the song pulls the two threads together I can see Thurston Moore jumping a stack of oil drums in a beat-up Buick Skylark, and... yeah. "Bottle Rocket" makes the questionable decision of burying the MC spot in the mix, but it's an undeniably kickass track otherwise. Except would someone please shoot the guy with the harmonica? For serious?

So this record scores major points for sounding not quite like anything else, but loses points for inconsistency and the earache factor. If you're a fan of the sunshiny, philly soul-y sound that it draws from, it's definitely worth a buy, but for the rest of us I call burn.

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Devendra Banhart: Rejoicing In The Hands

Is it because of Pitchfork's reviews that Banhart and Newsom are always compared together? Or were they really the two artists that led the "folk singers with an interesting voice" movement that Isaac has told me about? True, Banhart's music hinges in large part on his voice, but it's nowhere near as important as Newsom's music. It's like comparing They Might Be Giants to Weird Al or Dizzee Rascal to M.I.A. - Newsom is just way weirder than Devendra Banhart. Banhart's voice honestly isn't an oddity in the music world, either: Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, just to name a couple, have weirder voices than Banhart, and Banhart himself sounds like Billie Holiday. I hope the hipsters don't think otherwise, because a lot of people like to wear the weirdness of their tastes like a badge of pride. I read that he's a "psych" folk guy, and that he's from some Weird America movement, but let's not kid ourselves: Banhart's not that weird.

This album is another ultra-sparse collection with mostly just voice and a single guitar. Not a whole lot of musicians can really pull this off, and Banhart is very talented. He's got a really good vibrato, and he doesn't take himself completely seriously. The guitar parts on every song are impressive in themselves as compositions, and there is even an instrumental, "Tit Smoking In The Temple of Artiestwhatever", which is an impressive display of technical skill on classical guitar.

The problem I have with this album is that a lot of the melodies, while catchy seem obvious, like "The Body Breaks". Others are lacking in distinction. There are some really good songs on here, too, though, like "A Sight To Behold", which is a wonderfully dark song that is kind of like a grizzled old bluegrass ditty like from Leadbelly. Most of the songs are short, and there's a lot of them, so there's a lot to sample from.

I don't know what to recommend, exactly. It doesn't have the potential, in my opinion, to become a favorite or an anthem, but it's got some really good sounds on it. Then again, so many of them while well-crafted don't evoke a whole lot emotion in me, but at the same time I find myself whistling them or tapping my foot. So....... buy it. You could waste your money on a lot worse shit, like the Ghostface album.

Another folkie with poetic lyrics and a funny voice. His lyrics aren't as immediately pleasing to me as Joanna's, but they're not bad, and he fingerpicks his guitar with verve. He is more redolent of old-school folk than she, bringing to mind shades of early Donovan and even bits and pieces of Guthrie and Leadbelly. There's the strength here that if you don't like a song you can pretty much wait a couple minutes and another one will show up, which is a relief after most of the albums we've looked at recently. There're crickets chirping in the background of some of these recordings -- it's lo-fi in the right way, in that Devendra's voice and guitar come through crystal clear but you can hear the odd faint creak or footstep in the background. Even the piano on "Will Is My Friend" (which I suspect for no reason is about Will Oldham) and elsewhere seems to have been treated with Old-Timey Resin and sounds like it hasn't been tuned since the time of the Romans. For the most part this album could have been recorded pretty much any time since 1950 -- the only thing that marks it out as modern is self-consciously indie touches like leaving the abortive first take of "Todo Los Dolores" tacked on to the beginning of the song. Which is charming, don't get me wrong. And the song itself is great. The easy range of Devendra's voice allows him to compose in ways that would be simply off-limits to most songwriters.

I... feel like I should like this stuff more, if that makes any sense. It's manifestly good music tastefully presented, his lyrics are appropriate if not particularly affecting, and his voice is beautiful. Some of it does sound samey, though, and I wish more of the album had the stomping percussion and bass that animate the end of "This Beard Is For Siobhán". ("Fall", another number which employs that fuller-band sound, is a highlight.) The rest isn't all man-with-guitar, with flutes and strings and xylophones darting in and out in tasteful washes, but one can end up mellowed out to the point of disinterest. That's the only explanation I can come up with for why I can't muster up more enthusiasm for this album. I think it goes on too long, and I think he relies a little too much on repetition. Those both go with the folk territory, though. I think my attention span must be shot.

What can I tell you? It's worth at least a burn, if not more. The production alone deserves props for being at once tremendously intimate and extremely precise, preserving the feeling of a lone guitarist playing in a room even as a string quartet crashes around him on the impressive "A Sight To Behold". But something nags at me about this album, and I can't quite put my finger on it. He and Joanna Newsom were the most visible faces of the burgeoning folk scene in New York (which Pitchfork and thus everybody else dubbed "freak-folk".) The Animal Collective were also lumped in, even though for the most part they're more interested in making squishy noises and screaming than balladeering. Now, Joanna is an original and she would be doing poetry if she wasn't making music, but Devendra's folkiness seems so studied and his influences so obvious that I wonder where his soul is. There's no political content here, none of the social commentary and everyday experience that animated the original folk movement. There's no anger. Everything is very pretty and milky and friendly and hippie. And more than a little stoned. I want some incisiveness, some evidence of personality, and, frankly, a more wrothful face on his personal god. From this kind of talent I demand actual content.

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