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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

Joanna Newsom @ The Pabst Theater

Oct. 21, 2007

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Indie rock took a beating in the blogosphere last week. In a series of writings, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones lambasted the genre for its lack of rhythm and its ever-growing distance from African-American music. Not to be outdone, Slate's Carl Wilson rebutted with his own equally scathing critique, arguing that the genre is demarcated not only by race, but by class. Wilson contends that indie rock has become the music of choice for educated, upwardly mobile NPR listeners.

There's perhaps no better support for Wilson's claim than the wave of indie artists performing posh concerts with full orchestras. In recent years, Bright Eyes, The Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian, Antony and the Johnsons and Sufjan Stevens have played orchestral dates, and Sunday night Joanna Newsom added her name to that list, launching a short tour with a full orchestra at the Pabst Theater.

Even without the orchestra, Newsom is ostentatious. The 25-year-old plays a giant harp, basks in medieval sounds and imagery, and sings with the tart, excitable voice of Shirley Temple. Though it may seem peculiar on the surface, there's a clever logic behind Newsom's music. She also possesses a sense of humor that she's rarely credited for, punctuating her fantastical sonnets with quaint, almost deadpanned rhymes.

Previously considered an oddity, albeit a talented one, Newsom garnered serious attention with last year's Ys, which paired her with fluttering, unstable orchestral arrangements from Van Dyke Parks (the pioneering composer behind The Beach Boys' Smile). Ys' lengthy compositions wow on disc, but they were truly brought to life in concert, where some 30 musicians conjured a sound fuller than a CD could ever capture.

To be sure, indie rock is heading in a dangerously haute direction right now, and the genre faces an image crisis that's only going to grow worse as the $5 shows Fugazi preached gradually give way to $100 box seats. But if indie rock's allegiance with the gentry continues to yield performances as wondrously lavish as Newsom's, then maybe it's for the best: Let hipsters become the new yuppies.

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