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A timeless reality in fairy tales re-imagined

Strength, suffering and survival mark the poetry of three artists on the pop-folk horizon.

November 29, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

"Realism leaves out so much," wrote science-fiction author Joanna Russ in 1995, introducing "The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women." Russ was making the common feminist argument that fantasy and fairy tale express the inexpressible, especially for women, whose realities, Russ wrote, "wouldn't do."

Long before the Brothers Grimm scooped them up, stories of monsters and fairies encoded real women's histories of violence and survival; these have become our Cinderella stories, constantly updated. Women have created fiction, music, fashion, visual art and theater in reference to this folklore. This deep historical investment renders the realm of fairy-tale fantasy essentially feminine; J.R.R. Tolkien notwithstanding, the witch rules the wizard in our hearts.

So it's no surprise that another bunch of fantasy spinners has emerged in time for winter solstice, this time from the folkish side of pop music. These artists vary widely in sound and style but are linked by the feminine fabulist legacy, using it to express radical individualism or to preserve the communal voice it also conveys.

Joanna Newsom, who plays tonight at the Malibu Performing Arts Center and Thursday at the El Rey Theatre, is the trend's most radical individualist. Her vision exceeds that of any pop artist this year except, perhaps, hip-hop auteur Timbaland. Newsom, 24, doesn't work in her generation's palette of beats and samples; she plays and writes on the harp, and has ties to Devendra Banhart's new folk sphere.

Her widely extolled new album, "Ys," employs "folk" not in the amateur, strummy sense of the word, but as Charles Ives and Newsom's favorite composer, Ruth Crawford Seeger, meant it -- its five long songs present a composer's vision of how popular themes work within a modernist framework. There's some Stephen Foster in this music, and Sondheim too, along with the polyrhythms Newsom probably learned while studying music at Mills College under the influence of that institution's groundbreaking composition professor Pauline Oliveros.

If not for Newsom's gamine charm and the insatiable blogosphere, she would have surely been banished to the outlands where such "classical" genre-benders as Iva Bittova and Phil Kline reside. Instead, after reworking the lieder in the short, sparse, poetically metered songs of 2004's "The Milk-Eyed Mender," Newsom did what it takes to make avant-garde music pop: She went for name recognition.

With orch-pop legend Van Dyke Parks lending a friendly tone on the arrangements, and post-punk production studs Steve Albini and Jim O'Rourke turning knobs to create an intimate effect, "Ys" cleanses the art song of its academicism and widens its emotional appeal. Newsom's whooping, swooping, crone-baby voice, off-putting to some, helps her cause -- seemingly directed by emotion and luck but actually the product of very careful phrasing and tonality, it's the looking-glass inversion of a classically trained soprano.

Newsom's sprawling, imagistically rich lyrics embed motifs from the folk tale lexicon just as her music reworks the history of art song. "Ys" contains only one straightforward fable -- "Monkey & Bear," in which a she-bear escapes her monkey-master by shedding skin and bone.

Elsewhere, Newsom elevates obsessions that could come off as stereotypically girlish -- romantic love, the tension between freedom and domesticity, the continuum of childbirth and death -- by culling from centuries of spun story. The astronomer sister of "Emily," the sucked-on cherry stone in "Only Skin," the spectral soul mate of "Cosmia": These references hint at countless half-remembered stories but retell none.

She has the uncanny ability to make what's common seem like hers alone. That gift, wrapped up in her quirkiness but not determined by it, lets her stand apart on shared ground.

LOREENA McKennitt is not interested in solely owning motifs. At 49, with seven albums under her silken belt, this Canadian multi-instrumentalist (harpist, for one) is still pursuing the consummate New Age goal of a musical fusion that unites entire cultures. "An Ancient Muse," her first studio album in nearly a decade -- since the death of her fiance in a 1998 boating accident -- carries the weight of personal melancholy but contains that emotion within a larger narrative of wandering and waiting.

McKennitt's sound is as smooth and groove-oriented as Newsom's is jaunty and rhythmically perverse. Her bell-pure soprano arches like that of her countrywoman Celine Dion, but she's less prone to pathos. Based in Celtic music, her approach incorporates Arabic, Jewish and even Mongolian influences.

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