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Trolleyvox's Rockin' and Movin' Voice

December 21, 2006 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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Winter of content for Joanna Newsom
The Trolleyvox just keeps getting better. The musical chemistry between singer Beth Filla and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Chalfen has been obvious since the outset, but seven years down the line, they've made their best record yet.

"The Karaoke Meltdowns," released recently, shimmers with sweet melodies and pretty power-pop guitar. Previous outings had charms of their own, but the Philly group's lucky third release is more confident, more varied and more engaging.

After a light instrumental preamble, "Just You Wait" sets the album in motion. It's the Trolleyvox's hardest rocking song, and with lines like "Drown the flames of the folly crusade/With the tears of the fire brigade/And end this cynical reign," it's their most topical, too.

The lyrical references to the current administration, here and in "Baby You Were Lied To," are vague enough to leave a Bush booster's mind untroubled, but the video for "Just You Wait" illustrates the point with a barrage of TV clips that highlight the link between brain-numbing entertainment and the government's less benign idea of theater.

Easing Up a Bit
Most of the songs are more relaxed. A horse and carriage provide an ideal rhythm track for "Deep Blue Central," while the piano-driven stand-out "Twilight Hotel" manages to be both stately and understated.

Despite the occasional head-scratching phrase ("My last stop artichoke calico" comes to mind), Filla's at her wistful, woozy best on "I Know That You're High," and it's refreshing to hear her developing an assertive streak on "I Am Annabelle" and the chiming "Onion Is Missing."

Chalfen usually has his hands full -- he's credited with playing piano, guitar and occasional bass, along with the less common rock props of tangerine and eggs -- but he steps up to the mike with a poetic lead on "Joyride," and his husky voice is a pleasant change of pace.

The partnership between Chalfen and Filla is what makes the Trolleyvox hum, but having a tight rhythm section can really help when you're trying to win over a noisy bar crowd.

· · ·

Joanna Newsom is, without a doubt, a remarkable artist. Her new album, "Ys," has just five songs, but at seven to 17 minutes apiece, they're all epics.

Her harp sets a pastoral scene; the orchestra, conducted by Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, adds majesty and tension. Violas swell, cellos tremble and the marimba sparkles.

Sensual, evocative phrases tumble out of Newsom's mouth and spin off in several thematic directions. She's got a poet's vocabulary and a naturalist's eye for detail; she sings of peonies' "hydrocephalitic listlessness" and of the way "estuaries of wax-white/wend, endlessly, towards seashores unmapped."

Rarely is desire as urgent and ambivalent in song as it is in life. "Sawdust and Diamonds" captures the painful game of attraction. "Push me back into a tree/Bind my buttons with salt/ Fill my long ears with bees," Newsom pleads, "Praying, 'Please please please, love'/You ought not/No, you ought not."

The music's grand and the lyrics are grander. So what's not to love?

Newsom's vocals remain the sticking point. Her distinctive screech ranges from girlish to age-ruined, and as with Bjork, Billie Holiday and CocoRosie, repeated listening is mandatory but no guarantee of satisfaction.

You'll either grow to love her voice or your initial hatred will sprout, and if you don't acquire the taste for it, you have little hope of enjoying the rest of her work.

No matter how lush Parks' arrangements are or how impressive Newsom's command of the language, the songs won't absorb you if that voice always sets you on edge. But give it a chance or three -- there's definitely something magical here. 

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