In pop, romance poetry and childlike sopranos go together like milk and cookies, and are often just as cloyingly sweet. From Joni Mitchell to Bjork, the ethereal method always sounds like a teenage girl with a crush on Byron. Joanna Newsom, who grew up in rural California, springs from this mold fully formed on her debut album. Her vocals are goofier and more artless, more thoroughly nubile than other thrushes of her ilk; her poetry more striking for its sonic textures than for its meaning or metaphors. But there is meaning if the listener is willing to accept Newsom’s telescoped view of the world. In the fairly rollicking “Inflammatory Writ,” she surveys the literature of literature, creating what very well may be the first love song to English composition. A trained harpist who has studied a variety of ethnic styles as well as the classics, Newsom backs her loud, confident singing with simple elegant phrases. Her forms are derived from Appalachian music and bluegrass, but the overall effect is closer to that of European art songs. She’s less a songwriter than a craftsman of musical trinkets, each one a miniature marvel of detail and originality.
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