9 p.m. Saturday
Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Ave., 895-8477; www.tipitinas.com
Tickets $22.50 in advance, $25 at the door
Leave it to Joanna Newsom to relate music criticism better than any music critic. "It's really hard to communicate about music," she says. "You're describing what you want, and using these adjectives that don't really describe anything concrete. They're feelings, and you're kind of trusting that the other person sees the same thing you see when you see the color red."
Newsom isn't talking about writing per se — she's describing the creative chemistry she shares with multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi, her song arranger and touring companion — yet she is talking about writing. Everything the California-born singer/harpist says and does points to a master's grasp of the art of composition. In February, Newsom released her third LP, Have One on Me (Drag City), an elaborate, 18-track song cycle that reveals its melodic and lyrical themes slowly, over two hours and three sides. An answer to 2006's divisive Ys — itself a five-track, 55-minute epic, further aggrandized by Van Dyke Parks' string arrangements — the overwhelming triptych should collapse under its own weight. Instead, in a feat of recording engineering, its pieces work both as striking freestanding designs and as part of an intricate whole.
Newsom didn't set out to best her previous record. "Initially at least," she says. "I was just writing songs. And I reached a point where I technically had enough material to be a single album, and it started to register that I didn't feel done; the album felt incomplete, so I continued to write. I guess I was, in the back of my head, reserving the possibility of these songs being on more than one record, that I was writing more than one album at once. At some point I realized that wasn't the case."
At once bigger and more scaled back, Have One on Me is Newsom's sweet spot, a synthesis of the simple brilliance of the harp-plucked miniatures on 2003 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender and the sprawling medieval fairy tales on Ys. "It's been different so far on all three records," she says. "When I first started, it was always lyrics first. On (Ys) it was arranged instrumentation first: I was writing instrumental lines in a more composed way. For this record, the way that I've written is like sketching, and then slowly painting layers upon layers over the sketch, partially because I decided to write a lot of the songs initially on piano, which is not my instrument. I wanted to try writing on an instrument I had limitations on. As such, I was focusing not on the embellishment, not on the athleticism of a line, but on the chordal structure — the bones of the song."
That the first platter belongs among the finest folk/pop offerings of the year is evident long before you fully realize the endless reasons why: the spindly, spidery instrumentation on the title track invoking its "daddy long legs" arachnid lyric, or that song's main harp refrain reincarnated as a piano ballad for "Soft as Chalk," the opener to disc three. "Each section in that song had a character, a different spirit or a different mood or a different setting," Newsom explains in typically vivid detail. "Here's the gold rush saloon: People are gambling in this moment. Here's the tarantella moment, and this is the dancing moment, and this is the moment where she's flinging tarantulas off her body. The instrumentation has a really close, tight relationship with the lyrics."