Monkey & Bear
Sawdust & Diamonds
Pronounced “ees,” harpist Joanna Newsom’s second album is an unusual piece of modern artistry; it doesn’t sound like anything else released in 2006. Five songs in 55 minutes, the album slowly unravels in its idiosyncratic nuance. Newsom’s voice recalls old style jazz and cabaret singers with the touch of a ‘60s folkie while her compositions and arrangements are steeped in wandering, ponderous art song. Strings, woodwinds, brass, a variety of percussion – at points, a full orchestra — and the expert scoring of legendary and controversial producer Van Dyke Parks who has enhanced and skewered the music of the Beach Boys, Randy Newman and Victoria Williams over the years, make this onion worth unpeeling. There is no easy point of entry. The opening cut, “Emily,” for example, begins: “The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport of the pharaoh.” These are not easy songs to penetrate, narrative in moments and quickly abstract, romantic in the longing for an existence very apart from modern life.