Harp life: With her operatic baby voice, Joanna Newsom can be an acquired taste. Regardless, though, to see her live is to be amazed.
The ornate, majestic, cream-colored pedal harp glows in the center of the stage, hugged by a grand piano, drums, violins, violas, guitar, bass, cello, recorders and other noisemakers. Her five-person band, which includes two siblings, glides between instruments within songs. Her own gentle choreography—from harp to piano and back again—feels like theater. Her intricate orchestrations infuse folk, indie rock and jazz into a unique baroque pop with zero pop song structures.
Last week at the Crest Theatre, the Nevada City native played for friends, family and her first piano and harp teachers. It was a special night, a hometown show.
“[My harp teacher] is making me nervous,” she said, sporting a long and flowy floral-print dress as well as a long and flowy ponytail. “I’m trying to make sure my technique isn’t too bad tonight.”
The venue held a special place in her heart, too.
“Once or twice a year, we would do the big drive from Nevada City to the Crest, to the big city,” she said.
While she quietly tuned her harp in between songs, the audience remained perfectly silent, attentive to any possible thing Newsom might utter. Though, every so often, one person would shout something out, like the name of the street she grew up on.
“I hope you know that for legit reasons,” she responded quizzically.
Or, simply the word “mystical.”
Even that, Newsom acknowledged politely, and entirely unfazed: “I’m mystical?”
Listen up: Immediate, effervescent and beholden of a personality that’s not transparently derivative of regional trends, Esso P’s Finally Focused just might be 2016’s Best Local Rap Album No One Outside the 916 Will Hear.
Even locally, this record feels bound to be criminally overlooked. It drops digitally on Wednesday, April 20, with a release party on Saturday, April 23, at Taqueria Jalisco (330 16th Street). Esso P invites the listener into his everyman rap life: the highs and lows of a productive pothead, the bonds formed and the breakdowns.
Finally Focused glides in on a cosmic jazz that’s reminiscent of Dungeon Family and Earthtone III production circa Outkast’s Stankonia crossbred with the downtempo of Zero 7. It’s the proper backdrop for the ZFG affiliate to lock into a heavy mental state that runs counter to typical stoner music. Esso P might trade celebratory wake ’n’ bake bars with C Plus on “3 Strains,” but “Remedy” explores the dark side to substance abuse. That yin-and-yang balance is present across the album. Seeking a Bonnie to his Clyde, “Pop Off” asks, “Is you down, babe?” over drowsy subterranean grooves, while “Don’t Chu” reiterates the inquiry over bouncy synths to Esso P’s confident croon of, “Ooh la la, you really wanna fuck with me, don’t chu?”
Finally Focused stumbles occasionally: “Love For Me” and “Thinkin Different” deflate early momentum. “Same Same (Intro)” sets a psychedelic, third-eye vision for the album, but it could do without James Franco’s crass “same same” speech from The Interview. He recovers with “Blowin It Up” and plateaus on “Paula” which features assassin-level turntablism by DJ Nocturnal and a tongue-twisting guest verse by fellow ZFG rapper Luke Tailor, who rightfully declares that Esso P messed up by letting him get a word in. It’s friendly competition that ends in a stalemate.
Invoking Stankonia might seem malapropos for a local artist, but repeated listens to Finally Focused reveal nuance to the production largely handled by Chinza//Fly and Mister Mammoth. Notably, Chinza//Fly is a credited producer on Nicki Minaj’s “Shanghai.” Esso P has connections to proven professionals, but the strength of Finally Focused remains provincial. Recordings were split between Soundcap Audio and engineer AlienLogik’s Elk Grove studio. AlienLogik’s mastering might unify the record’s atmospheric haze, but the catalyst was Esso P’s focus and clarity in pairing a sound simpatico to his woke ’n’ boke persona.