By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
As the old hymn goes, usually His Eye Is on the Sparrow, but unfortunately not in the case of Neko Case's "Maybe Sparrow." This particular sparrow is on his own, though he did get a warning (which he didn't heed) about the hawk. All the sparrows in Joanna Newsom's Ys are OK, though. And birds from both camps are able to talk to human beings and other animals with no problemwhen the heroine of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood's title track asks the fox, "Who married me to these orphaned blues?", he replies, "It's not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder/When the death of your civilization precedes you."
Now, that's not good news. But as in older times, animal fables like Newsom's "Monkey and Bear" were meant to instruct humans toward living a fuller, more spiritually focused life. Neither of 2006's Top 10charting female singer-songwriter albums qualifies as straight gospel or is even overtly religious, but since both Case and Newsom are concerned with spiritual matters, their songs are more sacred than secularthe latter artist is an epic bard, and the former a parable weaver. Central to both the pastoral parlor songs and old-world female gnosis of Ysand the countrified new-world apocalyptic judgment of Fox Confessor is their reliance on old-timers' music like the blues, ragtime, bluegrass, and spirituals.
Take Case's cover of "John Saw That Number," the traditional hymn about John the Baptist. Just like the Sunday morning version in a country backroads church, it begins and ends a cappella, but more important, it retains the chorus of clanging tambourines, the congregation's syncopated clapping, the boogie-woogie piano, and the three-note bluesy melody of most gospel. The addition of electric guitar just gives it a honky-tonk revival meeting vibe. And then there's "A Widow's Toast"Case's solemn, minute-and-a-half, mostly a cappella hymn about the love of a God that "catches you from falling"wherein church women pledge, "I'll put my hand on the truth by God," in four-part harmony. The relatively rock-oriented "Fox Confessor" is less God-fearing, but it concerns the shame of sin, and at song's end, when the narrator's faults are recognized, she offers a plaintive plea to her animal savior: "Will I ever see you again?/Will there be no one above me to put my faith in?"
As for Ys, on the first whiny, bluesy moments of "Emily," we're immediately thrown into a Good Book flashback, led down by the riverside where "the meadowlark, the chim-choo-ree, and the sparrow/Set to the sky in a flyin' spree for the sport of the pharaoh"; some time later, we learn that "everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk, and dour." And as the old hymn goes, all God's children have got wingsand a harp. Newsom often makes hers sound like a kora, or more to the point, a banjoonce you cut through all the classical art-song veneer and paddle to the heart of "Emily," you'll hit a jug band sequence, rootsy yet aimingskyward: "We could stand for a century/Starin'/With our heads cocked/In the broad daylight at this thing/Joy/Landlocked/In bodies that don't keep/Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being." Here, actual banjos are added to the score, as well as a Jew's harp. The result isn't exactly "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," but with all that Song of the South orchestration in full effect (just like during the "And all those lonely nights down by the river" sequence in "Cosmia"), it doesn't sound out of ken when Newsom sings, "Don't be bothered/Leave your troubles here/Where the tugboat shears the water from the water," ya hear?
Ys sustains that baptismal bent throughout. Swinging string-band fiddlers appear frequently on "Monkey and Bear," along with requests for jigs"C'mon, won't you dance, my darlin'?"and attendant pleas to get things done before we "turn to dust." Then there's the shucking and jiving, as Newsom calls it, of the banjo-filled hillbilly reprise at the end of "Only Skin," in which Newsom claims, "Take my bones I don't need none," with a deep-voiced Bill Callahan stopping by to declare our bones "gone, gone, gone." Even better is Newsom's country preaching on "Sawdust and Diamonds," a melancholic hymn that shouts, "We deserve to know light and grow evermore lighter and lighter," and exhorts, "Though our bones they may break and our souls separate/Why the long face?/And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soul/Why the long face?"
Case seems to have gotten right with her God, too. Regarding that great getting-up morning, she bravely explains amid the windswept guitars of "At Last" that "If death should smell my breathing/As it pass beneath my window/Let it lead me trembling, trembling/I own every bell that tolls me."
Though both albums engage spiritual enlightenment, they ultimately prefer self-knowledge through the careful observation of nature. The old-time religion and the old-time music aregood enough for both Case and Newsom to reach the land of milk and honey, though"Darlin', we will get there yet," Newsom's Monkey assures Bear.