The Incredible String Band’s cryptic whimsy and Vashti Bunyan’s beautiful balladry have quietly resurfaced in a bushel of great new bands, and especially so, it seems, in the songs of such fairly uncategorizable young female Californians as Gwendolyn, Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, and Joanna Newsom. The latter in particular has latched onto that old-world religion. Her main ax, a Lyon & Healy semi-grand harp, accompanies a high, lonesome voice halfway between indie quirk-pop and Appalachian mountain music.
Old-timey embroidery surrounds the fetching lass’s photo on the cover of The Milk-Eyed Mender, an image as lyrically labored as songs such as “Clam, Crab Cockle, Cowrie” and “Peach, Plum, Pear.” Lines like “Do you want to sit at my table/My fighting fame is fabled/And fortune finds me fit and able” seem to lie somewhere between Bob Dylan and the “light verse” of Jeanne Steig’s Alpha Beta Chowder.
Like the equally bedazzling Nellie McKay, Newsom—who also plays in San Francisco’s the Pleased and contributed outside harp to Deerhoof/Hella side project Nervous Cop—has a mind like a whip and sometimes uses her deft “inflammatory writ” as a distancing maneuver. But don’t go away. She’s really just a brainy nature girl at heart.