Tuesday, December 12, 2006

JOANNA NEWSOM: Ys (Drag City)

JOANNA NEWSOM
Ys
DC303CD
Drag City 2006
05 Tracks. 55mins41secs




Buy it: CD | LP
Drag City

No word can convey the emotional turmoil that Joanna Newsom’s Ys causes to this reviewer’s soul. Neither can words begin to do any justice to such a complex and tortuous piece of work. For her second album, Ms Newsom has seriously upped the stakes. Already, The Milk-Eyed Mender, released on Drag City over two years ago, demonstrated the extent of her story-telling talent and her musical capability. With Ys, she takes this to a completely new level and dares going where very few have gone before her.

A classically trained harpist, Joanna Newsom has, in recent years, been involved in a variety of projects, from playing keyboards with art rockers The Pleased to guesting for the likes of Smog, Cat Power, Vetiver, Vashti Bunyan or Will Oldham. Her solo work has however set her in a place all of her own. Newsom began singing almost by accident as she studied creative writing. Her unique, child-like voice proved something of an acquired taste, but it undoubtedly belonged with the delicate dreamy folk songs of The Milk-Eyed Mender, giving her work a truly individual identity.

On Ys, Joanna Newsom ditches traditional pop song structures for much more elaborate forms, sourcing strength in both classical and traditional folk music to allow for her tales to develop over several minutes. Freed from the confines of the classic verse/bridge/chorus form, Newsom creates here a world full of magic and wonders which continuously flourishes and expands as orchestral waves ebb and flow, at times washing over Newsom’s omnipresent harp, at others retiring into the most minute cracks. The songs were originally recorded by Steve Albini, with Newsom singing over skeletal versions of each piece. Van Dyke Parks then added orchestral swathes around voice and harp, creating the supporting structure for these songs to become epic wanderings, which were then brought to life by Jim O’Rourke.

Newsom’s voice has gained in maturity but looses nothing of its disarming innocence and charm. Here, it becomes a wonderfully adapted vehicle for her rich language and intricate melodies, painting vivid images of life and death through exquisite metaphors and harmonies. From the delicate arabesques of Emily and Sawdust And Diamonds to the vast expanses of Monkey And Bear, Only Skin and Cosmia, Newsom crafts some of the finest lyrics heard in recent years, building up her stories around impeccable rhymes, and drops them onto ever-changing melodies. Classical and folk structures are intricately assembled without ever conflicting. Harp, strings and woods wrap themselves around banjos, accordions and guitars, while the madrigal opening of Monkey And Bear, the constant time signature variations of Only Skin or the subtle melodic progression of Emily give each piece a particular depth and a unique tone.

While The Milk-Eyed Mender was often deceptively simple, Ys is majestic, openly complex and fascinating. Above all, it is an incredibly mature and honest piece of work. Already a timeless classic, Ys sounds like nothing else around and is likely to remain unique as it is set to leave a strong mark not only on Joanna Newsom’s burgeoning career, but on everyone it touches.

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