“Things That Go Swing in the Night: The Rhythmic Gambits of Joanna Newsom & Jason Spaceman” by Peter Relic (2007)

Things That Go Swing in the Night: The Rhythmic Gambits of Joanna Newsom & Jason Spaceman

by Peter Relic

Posted Mon Nov 26, 2007 in Arthur’s Yahoo blog

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” Ella Fitzgerald once sang, but in the half-century since then popular music has accorded meaning to a wide variety of rhythmic developments, swinging and otherwise. Two recent concerts however–one by Joanna Newsom at the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and one by Spiritualized at L.A.’s ornate Vista movie theater–brought Irving Mills’ original lyric to mind. One swung, one didn’t. And what a difference it made.

I first saw Joanna Newsom perform in 2004 at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom (still my favorite venue in the U.S.). Accompanied only by her own harp, Newsom rendered the songs off her then-new The Milk-Eyed Mender LP faithfully, but with one profound difference: they swung like all heck. The technical excellence of Newsom’s harp-plucking became both more limber and more muscular in person, turning tunes like “The Book Of Right-On” into virtual funk workouts. She improved upon the recorded versions of her songs by realizing their additional rhythmic potential, thus evoking late great harpist Dorothy Ashby, whose albums Afro Harping and The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby are mystical jazz-funk classics.

So it was with great interest that I went to the Disney Hall performance this November 9th. Newsom performed songs from her complex-yet-accesible Van Dyke Parks-arranged album Ys backed by not only the L.A. Philharmonic but by three members of her Ys Street Band: a violinist, a banjo player, and a barefoot bowlcut drummer. Using both drumsticks and his hands, the drummer beat ultra-luddite 4/4 beats that had a twofold effect: first, he made V.U.’s Moe Tucker sound like Rashied Ali by comparison; second, he wrung all the rhythmic complexities out of Newsom’s music. When a member of the Philharmonic took to the vibraphone, it seemed like the whole thing might start to swing, but the vibes were inaudible. After the intermission, when Newsom performed sans-Philharmonic but with her quartet, the music retained its ethereal essence yet often seemed plodding. While it’s likely that my listening experience was affected by variable factors (an unbalanced soundmix, my upper tier seat), Newsom’s unaccompanied encore underscored the fact that strictly on-the-beat drumming inhibits the rhythmic possibilities of her songs.

Admittedly this is merely a matter of taste–the thudding drumming and approximately Appalachian style of her quartet set-up drew approving whoops from the crowd. But I’d love to hear her sometime backed by a nice little jazz combo.

A few days later I had the good fortune of seeing Spiritualized play on what could’ve been called their Acoustic Mainline Gospel-With-Strings tour. Leader Jason Spaceman, who has taken the sunglasses-at-night motif into the new millenium, rearranged his songs for a group that consisted of guitar, electric piano, two violins, viola, cello, and three female backing singers. No drummer, and no need for one–the absence of a drums created a huge space of rhythmic possibility, and the swell and ebb of the strings and voices realized the implicitly syncopated nature of that potential. Songs like “Going Down Slow,” “The Straight And The Narrow” and “Anything More” — slightly jazzy in recorded form–seemed to swing more than ever in their drum-free renderings.

I can’t help but think that the extraordinary uplift that I felt at the Spiritualized show–I’d go to church every week if it felt that good–had a direct correlation to the fact that the music swung. Which is not to say that the Joanna Newsom show didn’t mean a thing. It’s just that Spiritualized meant that much more.

Peter Relic is a contributing editor to Arthur Magazine