Atlantic Waves 08jun10: Drag City

I still cherish the description of British-American art collective Art & Language once given by Mayo Thompson, the head of four-decades-and-running concept/psych-rock outfit the Red Krayola: “the baddest bastards on the block.” Truth be known, I’ve lost touch with Art & Language’s recent form (except to mourn the passing of Charles Harrison in August 2009), so they may not be the ‘baddest bastards’ any more—but suffice to say, I’ve never seen art and theory with such rigour and such antagonistic, ornery force as their ’70s period.

Tellingly, Thompson first fetched up with Art & Language in the ’70s. The albums produced in that first blush, Corrected Slogans, Black Snakes and Kangaroo?, aren’t the most puzzling in the Red Krayola’s long career, but they are among the most formally intriguing. By shackling Marxist dialectic and art-historical commentary to rude, crabby post-punk music, Thompson created music that conducted itself with a perpetual question mark over its head. Nothing you think you understand, it seemed to say, makes any sense here. It was a very rigorous music performed with a strange ‘off-the-cuff’-ness that was permanently surprised by the recombinations and juxtapositions it coughed up. In line with the best post-punk, you could hear the musicians thinking as they played—and in some cases, you could hear them wondering what the hell was going on.

The five portraits here are of singular figures in American mythology: Wile E. Coyote, President George W Bush, President Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and Ad Reinhardt. (Reinhardt, perhaps, deserves the sub-heading ‘American modern art mythology,’ but never mind.) Of course, those coming to portraiture-via-music will expect vague mythologizing via lyrics, a bit of mysticism, maybe some rock heroics (U2 does MLK, in other words). The Red Krayola, being the baddest bastards in modern rock, give you the minutest, most programmatic painterly detail of each portrait, framed by songs that riff on motifs lifted from other, apparently relevant songs. Most hilariously, Ad Reinhardt (the abstract artist who, in the ’60s, painted his canvases in shades of black) cops a Mozart Sonata and…The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the Red Krayola for a long time now, but even I can admit that Thompson’s practice sometimes gets maddeningly diffuse. The ‘forced cohesion’ that he so values, and passed on to partisans like David Grubbs, is in fine form here. There’s an inherent clumsiness in the way he forces lyrics like “The iris and shadow beneath / The lid of the right eye, / A shadow of the inner corner of the left eye, / The opening of the left ear / Of President Jimmy Carter” against something that sounds like a defrocked 12-bar blues that’s still hard to process. Of course, this leads into a purple patch of messy free improvisation, before the Raincoats’ Gina Birch continues the tale. And on it goes.

If the last Red Krayola With Art & Language record, Sighs Trapped By Liars, surprised with its gentility, Thompson’s dialectical relationship to/with form pretty much dictated that its follow-up had to jut out at right angles from its predecessor. That push-me-pull-you is intrinsic to the Red Krayola’s practice, God bless them. It’s also what makes their history so uniquely and individually compelling. (By Jon Dale, Dusted magazine)

“Let’s get right down to business,“ mutters Bill Callahan, and he and his backup band gradually constructs “Our Anniversary,” starting with guitar and a barely brushed snare and blending in sweeping strings. Immediately, any long-term listener will understand why the man we knew as Smog started performing under his Christian name – very little remains of the self-flagellating lo-fi angstmonger who gave the world Wild Love, Burning Kingdom and The Doctor Came at Dawn and helped make the ‘90s even more depressing. The transformation that began with 1997’s Red Apple Falls is now complete. He retains a rigorous ear for detail, but he’s opened the windows, and his conversational baritone exudes a mature authority. The music is, if more conservative, unarguably richer and more thoughtful. If much of his back-catalog sounds like it came from a mental hospital, Rough Travel For a Rare Thing seems to emerge from a very productive, very well-organized home office.

For anyone who only got on board in time for the post-Smog stuff (officially starting with 2007’s Woke On a Whaleheart), this elegant live record brings back some of his earlier songs, performed through Callahan’s new perspective. An intriguing concept not fully actualized – four of the songs are from 2005’s first-rate A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, on which Callahan 2.0 had already fully emerged. “The Well” and “Rock Bottom Riser” build expansive arrangements over threadbare structures, allowing Bill and the band to sustain and develop their moods in ways the abbreviated studio versions couldn’t. The most interesting self-cover is “Bathysphere,” a ruthlessly bleak fan favorite from Wild Love rendered here as only vaguely ominous dad-rock.

Nothing terribly exciting here, but as it comes from a guy who made his bones as one of the most genuinely fucked-up-sounding people in music (an image his stint as Mr. Cat Power did nothing to diminish), it may be a welcome relief to hear him act like an adult.

Perhaps acknowledging it as a fans-only affair, Drag City released it as a double-vinyl exclusive (for, in the words of the typically cheeky promo copy, “in-the-know tastemakers and their gullible friends”). Right down to the packaging, it’s a classy show. (By Emerson Dameron, Dusted magazine)

Jon Pitt does an exceedingly accurate job of describing the core of Scout Niblett’s aesthetic in his review of 2005’s Kidnapped by Neptune. The quiet/loud dynamic and the Nirvana/grunge influence are fundamental to her last few albums, so much so that one might remark that there is little difference to be had between Kidnapped, 2007’s This Fool Can Die Now and her most recent, The Calcination of Scout Niblett. What makes Niblett interesting, though, is the way these outdated strategies (grunge hasn’t been popular in the aughts at all and is hardly rife for a comeback at this point) are merely a facet of her work, and the way in which they are tempered by other elements to create something wholly new.

It’s tough not to listen to Calcination without hearing decade’s old echoes – Bleach especially – but at the same time, these are merely reminders or remnants and not merely tools of pastiche. The music itself possesses a clarity – a clarity that grunge fights hard against. So wrapped up in Niblett’s work is already a tension between the this clarity – a kind of unambiguousness – and what she imports from her influences. Her voice complements this clarity. It is strong and full, a traditional voice arising from folk. These echoes though aren’t merely the reverberation of the American neo-folk movement, but echo back to Niblett’s British roots.

There is also a tension in Calcination as well between the loud/soft dynamic and the consistency of the album’s tone. Pitt, in his review, mentions that Albini’s production, “juxtaposes the quiet and the loud, embracing a bipolarism that repeatedly interrupts, jars and startles the listener to attention.” However, what’s masterful about Calcination is that through the changing dynamic, there is a remarkably steady tone. That which might be jarring in another context, calling attention to itself and pulling the listener out of the moment, is here a natural part of the music. It can’t startle because it doesn’t seem out of place.

Calcination itself is a process of heating something in order to break it down; there may be the idea of process in Calcination, of dynamics, but the steadiness of the tone gives the illusion of stillness. It takes an incredibly steady hand and a reservoir of patience to pull off this tone, but delightfully, still below the surface is that tension. There are these competing moments in her music then, and it is the way they compete that makes her aesthetic unique and beautiful. (By Andrew Beckerman, Dusted magazine)

Rangda is a mighty new project from the all-star coalition of Richard Bishop (here listed sans knighthood), Ben Chasny (best known as the Six Organs Of Admittance leader) and improv drumming legend, Chris Corsano. Notably, while Chasny and Bishop are most closely associated with virtuosic acoustic guitaring, False Flag finds the two wielding electric instruments, taking every opportunity to shred mercilessly through fuzzball workouts like opener ‘Waldorf Hysteria’ and ‘Serrated Edges’. In fact, all three musicians cut loose and rampage over their respective instrument at just about every turn – Corsano is his usual imperious self, setting his kit ablaze (figuratively speaking, at any rate) during ‘First Family’ in particular. Somewhere along the line Bishop sets his axe down in favour of a spot of piano, and Corsano turns his hand to organ and clarinet (although a cursory scan through the album doesn’t necessarily make it clear as to where this might be), but the musicians’ primary roles yield enough terrific results to last the album – an especially brilliant moment comes four instrumentals in, when ‘Sarcophagi’ arrives as a spooked slow jam, capturing some spine-tinglingly lovely duelling guitar work and sensitive, atmospheric percussion from Corsano. Highly recommended. (Boomkat)

Sometimes the best gigs are the happy accidents– stumbling on an unknown band, or being convinced to see an artist by a friend only to become a convert yourself. That’s how I was introduced to Major Stars: Hijacked, dragged to a tiny Baltimore bar where the band was headlining. And then, boom: Wayne Rogers launched into the first of many acid-rock solos and full-front assaults. I was awestruck in a way you assume people felt when first seeing, say, session guitarist Pete Cosey (best known for his work with Miles Davis) or Wayne Kramer (MC5).

I don’t throw those comparison points around lightly, either. But Rogers, partner Kate Biggar, and third guitarist Tom Leonard do play as if the merger of those two turn-of-the-70s titans was the most natural thing the world. The Major Stars sound begins with the post-blues/proto-metal of the MC5 at their most raucous. Unlike many 21st century bands known for guitar pyro, Return to Form trucks in muscular anthems rather than sprawling mess. Tunes like “Black Point” and “Low Grade” are as memorable for their rhythm section’s heavy-machinery lurch as the feedback splatter. Which just makes the freaky, near-freeform soloing– think electric jazz before it was tamed into fusion or psychedelia at its most caustic– all the more surprising when it erupts on “Black Point”.

But despite what you may have heard– or how the above sounds– this is not is a noise band, at least in the feedback-for-its-own-sake sense of the word. At their best, Major Stars combine tight riffs and chops with a deep, abiding love for joyous guitar slop. Vocalist Sandra Barett only sometimes adds to the band’s hummability quotient. If nothing else her slightly droning style adds a human presence, sometimes tough and sometimes surprisingly fragile, to what would otherwise be an hour of epic screech and murk. But she’s not Major Stars’ focal point by a longshot; the guitarists have a lot more charisma. Major Stars’ leads alone could command an arena, if bands this hairy hadn’t been banned from arenas a long time ago.

But occasionally the devotion to six-string mayhem overwhelms the songwriting, and unless you really get off on reams of guitar raunch, Major Stars on CD may still not be for you. Sure, Return to Form has the sound of hardcore 1970s psych down, even if the mp3 is about as ideal for capturing the music’s oomph as cheap hi-fi’s and transistor radios were 40 years ago. But for music as much about volume and spectacle and physicality, it’s undeniably easier to be wowed when the band is within spitting distance– flopping all over each other, axes and hair flying, amps approaching critical mass. Return to Form may not always have the tunes or the funkadelic special effects to keep casual listeners interested in the comfort of their own homes/cars/heads. Still, if the album sometimes feels like an advertisement for the next Major Stars tour, well, it’s still a pretty damned good advertisement. ( Jess Harvell, Pitchfork)

Introducing: Ryan Trevor is an unexpected relic of the late 1970s, a self-produced, self-released record mired in the sounds of the Beatles and late 1960s Los Angeles psych bands. Many have compared Trevor to Emitt Rhodes, which doesn’t seem quite right to me aside from the whole “guy who played every instrument and produced the album” angle.

I knew there was some Southern California band that had a similar sound to Ryan Trevor’s, it was driving me crazy and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out which one. The other night while I was checking out the Where The Action Is: L.A. Nuggets box set I figured out who I was thinking of: The Penny Arkade, a terrific band that worked with Mike Nesmith on a legendary unreleased album that was finally issued on CD by Sundazed in 2004. If not for the synthesizers, several of the songs on Introducing could almost be mistaken for Penny Arkade outtakes. You could also say Ryan Trevor is something like a psych-pop Kenneth Higney. Okay, maybe he’s not quite as weird as Higney, but there’s a distinctly strange, outsider quality to a lot of the music on the LP.

Ryan Trevor started recording the album in 1976. At the time he was already a professional songwriter and had co-writing credits on two Barry Manilow songs. A few years later he found some degree of success writing songs for “Sesame Street.” Trevor was an avowed Paul McCartney fanatic, though he doesn’t quite wear the influence on his sleeve as much as you might guess. After the bombastic symphonic “Prelude,” “Nights In The City” (a song Barry Manilow had turned down) starts off with a borrowed riff from “Taxman,” then goes off in a more interesting and original direction.

“Different Form Of Harmony” is easily the strangest on the album. The lyrics are boilerplate psychedelia—”try and sing high and you’ll find / it’s the same form of harmony / and melody sings through your mind”—but the music is weirdly slow and dark, and some of the backing vocals are screechy and sinister, almost like something off of Comus’s First Utterance album. But the best songs—fairly straightforward pop tunes like “England,” which is sung in a full-throated British accent, and the closing track “Rama (Come And Take Me)—are the least weird of the bunch, and sound like they could have been written by the bubblegum songwriter Tony Hazzard. It’s odd that “England” and “Different Form Of Harmony” even exist on the same slab of vinyl, which is part of what makes totally independent, private-press albums like this one so much fun to listen to. The mistakes and odd stylistic choices amplify the quality of the songs that actually work. (By Rob Hatch-Miller, Dusted magazine)

There have been some thorough examinations of post-punk– Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again being the most exhaustive– but could any study ever be complete? The reservoir of out-of-print/never-in-print gems from the fertile late 1970s and early 80s would have to dry up, and that hasn’t happened yet. The last few years alone have seen excellent reissues of San Francisco’s Units, New York’s Interference, London’s Lines, and Georgia’s Method Actors. Writing about the latter, Pitchfork’s Andy Battaglia guessed that the “post-punk vault… would almost have to be empty at this point.”

You’d think so, but mere weeks after the Method Actors release, Drag City has unearthed another treasure deserving of a new audience. Formed in Louisville in 1978, the Endtables lasted less that two years, releasing just one four-song EP while together. The Endtables compiles that EP, a posthumous two-song single, and six live tracks, painting a quick, sharp portrait of a band that sounded like they were in a hurry. Chugging along at a palpitating clip, the group flies toward the sun of the Buzzcocks and Gang of Four, but something about their hyper energy makes them a little more off-kilter than those groups. Like a sonic game of Jenga, their tunes feel like they could spill into unruly cacophony at the slightest nudge.

That never happens, but it’s not for lack of pushing and shoving by guitarist Alex Durig and singer Steve Rigot. Rigot in particular has a uniquely skewed rhythm, biting off his words in strident yelps like the Undertones’ Feargal Sharkey if you cut all of his lines in half. One of the best things about post-punk was the way many singers– Ian Curtis, Mark Mothersbaugh, David Thomas– turned technically imperfect voices into weapons through phrasing and attitude. Thomas may be the closest parallel to the bulbous Rigot, who certainly deserves a place in that patchwork pantheon of inventive vocalists. Durig is equally creative, slashing his chords across the songs like a whip across skin. But it’s Rigot’s delivery that gives these songs a mix of robotic staccato and wiry nerve.

Highlights abound– the engine-rev of “Process of Elimination”, the rubber-band snap of “Circumcision”– but the six studio songs are most notable for how little they deviate from the quality level established in the first note. The live tracks are less even– endearingly earnest and raw but often rather illegible. A few little twists, like an interlude of Clean-style garage swing in “Europe”, a song they never recorded in the studio, hint at some other places this band could’ve gone. But as a self-contained document of a lightning-quick, pretension-free moment in time, The Endtables is pretty spot on. ( Marc Masters, Pitchfork)

The late Hamper McBee was a moonshiner, carnival barker, and ballad singer of legendary proportions. First “discovered” and recorded by folklorist and performer Guy Carawan in 1964, Hamper’s prodigious talent and personality won him admirers not only in his native Smoky Mountains but throughout the folk music world, where his wholly unique approach to old-time ballads and lyric songs struck like revelations. He drew from both the oral tradition and from records — he especially loved Bradley Kincaid, Vernon Dalhart, and, surprisingly, Burl Ives — to create a repertoire entirely his own, and that he sung in a warm, powerful voice seasoned by prodigious quantities of cigarettes, booze, and joie de vivre.

Recorded by renowned country music scholar Charles K. Wolfe and filmmaker Sol Korine at Hamper’s home in Monteagle, Tennessee, in 1977, ‘The Good Old-Fashioned Way’ compiles the best of McBee’s traditional ballads, affecting original compositions, and outlandish, side-splitting stories of life on the carnival circuit, at the moonshine still, in the back of Sheriff Bill Malone’s patrol car, and as Hamper McBee. You’ve never met anyone like him before. You’ll be glad you did. (

A sepia-tinted kaleidoscope of garage rock, surf guitar, psilocybin’d folk and one of the oddest pop sensibilities this side of Beefheart and his Magic Band, cult artist and obscurantist favorite Michael Yonkers’ unreleased 1977 solo gem, Lovely Gold, shines with a 2010 dust-off and release from indie label Drag City. During the social tumult of the late 1960s, Yonkers had retreated, sequestering himself in his parents’ basement to experiment with tape loops and homemade synthesizers. A broken back, suffered in an industrial accident, would cause him to retreat once again. Recorded six years after that incident, Lovely Gold is the sound of an artist moving inward, into his own fractured and fascinating inner landscapes.

Indeed, this is freak folk before there was a name for such a thing. Rumbling percussion, effects-warped guitars and Yonkers’ warbly voice all intertwine and dovetail into an avant-everything wonderland of psychedelic minimalism. Songs like the rumbled croons and strums of “I Knew You’d Remember” give the first side of Trout Mask Replica a run for its money; “Drifting Off” forms a mid-album vortex of burbling noise effects beneath a slinky chorus melody; and “Will It Be” predates — and outweirds — the best of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s moody down-tempo material with a wash of haunting wails and shadowy sonics.

Yet however strong the Lovely Gold’s remainder is (and it is), the album would be crippled without its blistering title track. A four-minute paean to adrenalized freak-rock, “Lovely Gold” starts off as an ominous and nervy sway of circular surf-pop before steadily building, building, building into a guitar implosion gone nova as Yonkers pushes his instrument — and himself, by the sound — to its outer limits. Drag City was kind enough to pack in a bonus track (the unsettling moans of “Nevermore”) with this long-overdue release, but the sound of Lovely Gold meeting the light of day is bonus enough. (Travis Woods, Prefix mag)

Cave is a five-piece psychedelic group that originally formed in Missouri in the mid-2000s. After a few years of formless outre jamming with a constantly shifting lineup, the band settled into its current form, relocated to Chicago, and released a series of EPs, singles and albums on zeitgeist-attuned underground labels like Permanent, Important and Trensmat. The band’s latest full-length, 2009’s Psychic Psummer, was its most cohesive work to date and presumably led to its signing on with the renowned Drag City for its latest EP, Pure Moods.

Pure Moods clocks in at 25 minutes and three songs, opening with the relatively terse “Hot Bricks,” which showcases the group’s knack for conventional song form with a catchy melody and a hypnotic rhythm section. Traditional notions of rock music begin to dissolve on “Teenager,” whose repetitive chorus is a direct nod to Cave’s acknowledged forebears Oneida. The tune steadily builds throughout its seven-minute running time, and it’s easy to imagine the effort being a hypnotic, head-banging revelation live. The production is refined enough to allow individual instruments to shine but retains the signature warm and fuzzy atmosphere of this brand of muscular jamming.

Closer “Brigitte’s Trip (White Light/White Jazz)” has an unwieldy title to match its 13-minute running time, and although it never fully derails it can be a tedious listen at times. Despite being technically expert, the predictable deployment of synth squiggles, wah-wah peddles cascading out into space and the notoriously fickle pleasures of the buildup and release dynamic fail to come together. There’s no question that the quarter-hour jam is meant to signify a new evolution in Cave’s sound, but unfortunately the track sputters rather than explodes, at times bordering on indulgent prog wankery.

Although Cave’s skill at expansive jamming can’t be questioned — the band’s exemplary full-length record is a testament to this fact — it is the poppier material on Pure Moods that I kept coming back to. Opener “Hot Bricks” is notably satisfying, a studied survey of the appeal of krautrock maneuvers expertly condensed into a hummable rock tune. It is the potential of this new direction that is most thrilling about the new EP. Pure Moods is a typical stopgap, but the members of Cave hold their own as representatives of the Midwest contingent of the new American psychedelia currently exploding coast to coast, from Wooden Shjips to White Hills. (Max Burke, Prefix mag)

Jeff Eubank is not a name that often surfaces in modern day music, which is sad. He released one of the great, lost albums in music history in 1983. What made it extremely rare was the fact it was limited to 500 copies and pressed privately. I had heard a number of tracks through the years but despite my passion for vinyl, an affordable copy had always eluded me. I could afford.A Street Called Straight has finally been re-issued in vinyl and CD form.

This private pressing occurred at a time when albums and bootlegs such as this had a sound ranging from very good to almost unlistenable. This album falls into the excellent category and may have the best sound for a recording of this type I have heard. It’s CD sound, which was created from the original tapes, is equal to much of what is being produced today.

Eubank was a product of Kansas City but his music has a light, airy California quality which can best be classified as light psychedelic folk/rock. While it was issued during the early eighties, it really would have fit better in the late sixties or seventies.

Eubank provides the vocals, acoustic guitar, keyboards, flutes, plus he wrote all the songs. He is joined by electric guitarist Allen DeCamp, saxophonist and flutist Mark Cohick, bassist Don Harris, synthesizer player Scott MacDonald, conga player Gary Schroeder, and drummers John Cushon and Fred Blizzard.

It has a very smooth and at times other worldly sound. The flutes combine with the keyboards and then intertwine with the guitars. The lyrics are poetic and folk based at heart. Eubank is a good vocalist and has the ability to adapt to the uniqueness of each song. My favorite tracks include “Adolescent Daydream,” “Kamikaze Pilot,” “Earthian Children,” and “No Need For The Ground.”

It’s nice to have A Street Called Straight available again. Is it essential? Probably not. Is it interesting? Yes it is. Is it good music? Definitely! (David Bowling,

Although eloquent folk singer-songwriting is seldom in short supply, any particularly good contributions to the genre are always guaranteed a warm reception. Elisa Randazzo arrives with a Drag City debut via a role in the ranks of label favourite The Red Krayola, contributing not only to numerous live tours but four albums, for which she supplied violin and vocals. Randazzo seems to have gone into the family business, having followed in the footsteps of both her mother (Victoria Pike) and father (Teddy Randazzo) who were well-known on New York’s songwriter circuit back in the 1960s. Elisa’s music seems to be more rooted in the folk-rock sounds of the early 1970s however, and while there’s no shortage of evidence pointing to the influence of Canyon scene sounds, conjuring up references to the likes of Judee Sill and Linda Perhacs, and even channelling Harvest-era Neil Young on the excellent ‘Colors’. In addition to some very fine, seasoned writing, the articulate acoustic guitar work, delicate vocal harmonies and lavishly conducted country arrangements make Bruises & Butterflies an understatedly very special record despite it being something that could have been made at any point during the last forty years; there’s so much craft gone into songs like ‘He Faded’, ‘Circles’ and ‘Darkerlands’ that only the most hardened of folk sceptics could fail to appreciate its timeless charms. (Boomkat)

It was a little disturbing at first to hear that Joanna Newsom‘s full-length follow-up to the ambitious and polarizing Ys would be a triple album. Where 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender was an unusual record with its share of quirks (her squeaky voice and fondness for arcane language, the harp), it also had its simple pleasures. Most of the tracks were short and the sound was spare; you pretty much liked it or you didn’t based on how you felt about Newsom’s sound and her ability to put a song together. Ys, on the other hand, was unapologetically dense. The five songs averaged more than 10 minutes each, and through them Newsom sang continuously; Van Dyke Parks’ arrangements were similarly relentless, seeming to comment upon and embellish almost every line. It was a rewarding album– filled with memorable turns of phrase and impressive storytelling. Many were enthralled, and almost everyone at least admired it. But in comparison to Milk-Eyed, Ys took some serious work to crack. So when I heard that Newsom would be following it with a 3xLP set called Have One on Me, I had troubling visions of 25-minute songs with lyrics that stretched to 5,000 words.

As it turns out, Have One on Me is a “triple album” in the vinyl sense, in the same way that the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic is a “double album,” even though it fits onto one CD. There are 18 songs here, and they total about two hours. To pick a couple of reference points from the CD era, that’s the same length as Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and just a bit longer than Biggie’s Life After Death. Two hours is a lot of music, but having it broken into three discs, each the length of a 1970s LP, helps. You can dip into Have One on Me at a given point, listen for a while, and move on to something else. But while the album invites sampling, I’ve found myself returning to a different section each time I sit down with it. The highlights are spread out evenly, and Newsom couldn’t have sequenced the record any better.

While songs here evoke moments of Ys and Milk-Eyed and Newsom’s harp is still the dominant musical focus, it’s striking how much Have One on Me feels like its own thing. Not a progression, exactly, more of a deepening. You can feel roots going down and an edifice being built. Her voice has gained depth and she sings with more force and clarity, so that’s part of it. And the arrangements are more judicious and draw less attention to themselves (some tracks are just harp, others add horns, strings, and percussion, but with a lighter touch). But the bigger difference seems to be the overall mood, which is expansive and welcoming. The best songs feel more like conversations rather than artworks to be hung on the wall and admired from several paces away. Newsom seems to sing from somewhere deep inside of them, and her earthy presence has a way of drawing you in, bringing you closer to her music than you’ve been before.

The name you’ll most hear in discussion of this record is Joni Mitchell. Part of it is that Newsom can sound a fair bit like her with her more richly textured voice. Sometimes, almost eerily so, like on “In California” (the way she wraps the vocal melody around the evocative title word is just a few miles up the PCH from Blue’s “California”). In addition to her voice and phrasing, the more approachable songs here, from the stirring harp-and-voice ballads “Jackrabbits” and “Esme” to the funny, weird, and hugely appealing road song “Good Intentions Paving Company”, have bluesy chord progressions that stand in stark contrast to the rigid folk modes of Ys. These songs sway and heave with a warmth and approachability that are new for Newsom. They, and several others like them, offer a fresh way into Newsom’s music for the curious.

“The phantom of love moves among us at will,” goes a line in “Esme”. Most of the songs here deal with love in some form, another quality that connects Have One on Me to the broader singer-songwriter tradition. Sometimes the love is romantic; other times its about friendship or family. Newsom sometimes approaches the subject from her elliptical perch, talking in pictures– “Each phantom-limb lost has got an angel (so confused, like the wagging bobbed-tail of a bulldog),” is the line that follows the one above in “Esme”. But though Newsom indulges her gift for imagery early and often, Have One on Me has moments of simplicity and directness, where the tangled phrases can be boiled down to, “Life can be difficult and lonely and we all need love, but holding on to it can be hard.”

One significant difference between Newsom and Mitchell is that the latter, especially early in her career, was writing songs that would sound good on the radio. For better or worse, Newsom is not a pop singer– that’s just not what she does. So I don’t want to overstate this record’s accessibility. A few tracks here, especially longer ones like the title track and “Kingfisher”, approach the winding density that marked Ys. On these, song structure is elusive– at any given moment you’re not sure if you’re listening to a verse, chorus, or bridge. The lyric sheet helps a bit, but with two hours of music to digest, you won’t feel too guilty about using the skip button here and there, or digesting the record in pieces. Helpfully, returning to the most immediate songs causes their charm and appeal to bleed into the tracks that surround them– so the album seems to grow and change as you listen.

Have One on Me begins with “Easy”, about a wish for the kind of life the title suggests, and closes with “Does Not Suffice”, which finds the narrator packing up a house to leave after a breakup, putting away all that reminds her lover of how “easy [she] was not.” The latter is subtitled “In California, Refrain”, it uses a similar gospel-inflected progression as the earlier song, and it’s flat-out gorgeous, heavy with sadness (“the tap of hangers swaying in the closet”) but also exhibiting quiet dignity and strength. It’s my favorite song here, and it comes last, which is a dependable sign that I’ll be returning to an album often. When I hear Newsom sing the word “easy” in “Suffice” and my mind jumps back to the opener, it reinforces just how many threads she’s weaved between those songs and how incredible it is to discover new things with every listen. (Mark Richardson, Pitchfork)