"Have One on Me"
"Have One on Me"
Joanna Newsom is a hard act to follow. Turn that phrase around in your head for a minute, as you would a tarnished knickknack, or one of Newsom's own lyrics, assembled from fable and casual conversation and just those kinds of clichés. It has two meanings, and both apply.
In her young career, Newsom has burst free of the traditions that inspire her -- visionary California folk-rock, post-Kate Bush femme pop, fairy tales and modernist literature -- to assert a voice that seems totally singular, an end in itself. Her distinctiveness begins with her unusual primary instrument, the pedal harp, and extends to her long and winding song structures, her allusive but hard-to-track lyrics, and a voice that inspires a thousand metaphors (wood sprite, elf, child, chickadee), none quite right.
Newsom's music can't be duplicated. It's also very hard to grasp, despite being pretty and often inviting. Her last album, "Ys," was a song cycle orchestrated by Van Dyke Parks that laid story upon story like a Maltese falcon, touching on life's biggest subjects: desire, death, the natural world's pull on human consciousness. Her new three-disc set goes even further into that subject matter, and is even harder to track.
Yet it's an easier listen. Apart from its two-hour length, "Have One on Me" aims to be . . . accessible is the wrong word, so let's say palpable. Sensual, with the breadth and variety that music offers when you're dancing to it, or listening in bed, not sitting in a concert hall.
Some songs feature just Newsom and her harp; on others, she's at the piano. Newsom's touring bandmate Ryan Francesconi has crafted arrangements that highlight the many changing elements in these collaborations, from horns to banjo to street corner/campfire backing vocals. Grooves bubble up now and then.
The variety here suits the set's overarching theme of coupling and uncoupling. (At least that's the one that asserts itself first in a work overflowing with ideas.) Starting with "Easy," a song about "my man and me," and concluding with "Does Not Suffice," in which Newsom packs up her feminine finery and walks away, "Have One on Me" explores what intimate partnership offers, and what it costs.
Most tracks seem like love songs at first listen. Newsom uses the songwriter's default mode to explore how traditional love, for women, can be both the beginning and the end of possibility: a way to escape home and be exiled from it; to welcome children or be burdened by fertility; to be entrusted with secrets, or betrayed.
Newsom's current beau is comic Andy Samberg and her last was the musician Bill Callahan -- that gossip is relevant, since several songs here hint at the problems that can afflict a two-career couple. But as seemingly personal as Newsom's accounts of hunger, heartache and risk can be, she's never just writing about some guy. She goes deep, as deep as any artist working today, into the loud forest of stories where our ideas about love and the self are born. Her trail of crumbs isn't always obvious, but you can follow her there.
-- Ann Powers Life-affirming collaboration
Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabeté
"Ali and Toumani"
"Ali and Toumani" contains the final recordings made by a pair of master musicians: the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, who died in 2006, and the Cuban bassist Orlando "Cachaíto" Lopez, who died last year. But this 11-track album -- the second collection of collaborations by Touré and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabeté -- doesn't sound like death. Rather, it's an early contender for the warmest, most life-affirming listen of 2010.
As it was on the 2005 Grammy-winning "In the Heart of the Moon," the setup here is exceedingly simple. Shortly before a European tour in support of "Moon," that album's producer, Nick Gold, booked a London studio for three days and told Touré and Diabeté (along with a small cast of players) to do their thing. And so they did, running through material from each of their songbooks as well as a handful of African traditionals, including "Sina Mory," which Gold reveals in the album's liner notes was the tune that originally inspired Touré to play guitar.
Floating atop a gentle heartbeat pulse laid down by Lopez on bass and Touré's son Vieux on congas, the two principals trade licks with an intimacy that speaks of friendship but also of a shared understanding.
-- Mikael Wood Bleak lyrics, upbeat melodies
For an album that takes most of its imagery from foil-darkened heroin dens, Alkaline Trio's "This Addiction" feels more like a sugar high than an opiate.
The goth-tinted punk band, credited for better or worse as one of emo's progenitors, long paired sly, cartoonishly bleak lyrics with downright chipper melodies.
"Addiction" is its clearest distillation of that formula in years, and will remind a lot of prodigal fans about singer Matt Skiba's songwriting strengths.
Alkaline Trio has never been as evil as they imagined, and their obsidian sheen has sometimes bogged down their tunes.
Not so here: "Dead on the Floor" imagines Buddy Holly's sock-hop rock as a delicious romance-is-murder ballad, and "Eating Me Alive" drags up '80s-era Cure synths that could run your mascara from 100 yards away.
"Dine, Dine My Darling" is a witty Misfits homage, appropriate for a band built on two-minute pop tunes about suicide and vampires.
The album is a pointedly minimal production, though -- most tracks are simple guitar-bass-drum affairs with a few tasteful harmonies that put the surprisingly durable hooks up front.
Alkaline Trio may have a mouthful of purloined pills here, but Skiba's tongue is perfectly in cheek on his band's best album in years.
-- August Brown