To Be The Ones To‘ve Seen :: The Family Jams

Summer, 2004–a hotel room after dark. Joanna Newsom weaves a plastic ribbon between the strings of her harp. She flicks a few chords that, muted as they are, sound like they’re coming from an 8-bit processor and not an instrument of the Baroque eighteenth century. She is slightly drunk, apparently in want of something to do for the camera. Beside the room’s furniture, the harp looks comically gargantuan.

Kevin Barker, the man holding the camera, hasn’t gotten much out of her so far. If she isn’t exactly shy, she hasn’t seemed interested in extroverting either, at least not beyond the muse-state that so animates her performances on stage. But here, whether by intuition or luck, Barker has gotten his timing right. From the other side of the room, a request–that new song, something “ultra cinematic.”

A jump cut, and it’s “Cosmia,” already sinuous and confident in wordless fragment. The folk-lyric trot that’s characterized Newsom’s work up to this point has drifted definitively away, enfolded in the vortex of something much richer: a canto, glimpsed here through the keyhole of a digital camera in bad lighting. Two years from now, a completed version of the song will anchor Ys, Newsom’s high modernist opus. Tonight, the bedside clock reads 3:42 AM. A moment of fleeting levitation. Somewhere in America.

Joanna Newsom :: Cosmia

It’s this scene, and a few others like it, that The Family Jams was made for. Barker’s documentary is a snapshot of the mid-aughts ‘freak folk’ movement in its nascence. Newsom, touring nationally for the first time, accompanies friends and sonic fellow travelers Vetiver and Devendra Banhart, just as critical attention and collective Internet fanfare is translating into sold-out venues for them all across the country.

That snapshot can feel sentimental or quaint, or both, depending on your perspective. Originally premiered in 2009, and now given the deluxe treatment by Factory25 this spring, The Family Jams reemerges at a time when the sound it celebrates is largely out of fashion. By now, groups with broader aspirations have drawn from the same well of influences and smoothed over the eccentricities. For those interested in anthems and arenas, the modesty and sometimes-painful intimacy of these artists (both then and now) has less appeal. Devoted followings notwithstanding, the movement’s major players languish in a middle-distance of cultural memory, their legacy for the most part unexamined.

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