Joanna Newsom Ys

[Drag City; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: folk-pop, experimental folk
Others: Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, Vetiver, Feist

First, a little background about this particular review (for those of you who
just may be slightly interested):

This is easily the toughest review I've ever written. Any way I tackled it,
nothing was making sense. I spent days on a draft, dissecting every little bit of
voice, instrument, and orchestral movement, before scrapping it. Next came
comparisons in the dynamic between indie heroes Jim O'Rourke (producer) and
Steve Albini (recorder) and their cultural counterpart, Van Dyke Parks
(arranger). Needless to say, that too failed to approximate my feelings of Ys
and Joanna Newsom
properly. If anyone needs a hand with a musical thesis, perhaps my abandoned
attempts at explaining away Ys will be of help.

Writing this was becoming a chore, and writing reviews should never be a chore —
unless the album under scrutiny is painful and wretched to listen to. Ys, as I'm
sure many of you know by now, thanks to the leaky world wide web, isn't remotely
a chore. A task, perhaps, but not once did I think I was just doing my duty by
listening and writing down my thoughts for you to read. Pages spent on
Newsom's unique voice, her instrument of choice, and her collaborators would
only turn Ys into mush, ruined by over-analysis.

Now that I've bored many of you to tears, we finally come to what I settled upon
for reviewing Ys: talking about the wonder and excitement the album holds. With
only five songs, Ys would seem like the perfect album to do a track-by-track
dialogue, but no one wants to read about each track and watch it be dissected
like a frog. We are not scientists, we're music geeks — music geeks turned on by
harps, orchestras, and a guest appearance from Bill Callahan.

Ys begins with the gentle brushes of harp and the quivering call of Joanna's
voice. "Emily" is the perfect opening act to this five-part aria. The harp
carries a playful, carefree melody as Van Dyke Parks leads the orchestra in
playing Newsom's foil. The tale that "Emily" weaves is on par with any movement
of Peter and the Wolf, the harp a forlorn hero regaling a faceless audience with
its clearest memories and thoughts. Newsom is a master at turning lyrical
musings into prose, and "Emily" proves to be her strongest story yet. In the
four-minute doses of The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom was allowed just enough
time to whet appetites, but on the grand stage of Ys, the quick quips grow into
epic fables the size of Beowulf and Canterbury.

Instrument-as-character continues through "Monkey & Bear," yet another dazzling
story full of Newsom's unique imagery and Parks' carefully crafted swashes of
orchestral paint. It's just as easy to lose yourself in the musical scenery as
it is in the lyrical story. The only misstep in the marriage between Newsom and
Parks lies within the over-the-top "Only Skin." The orchestra lays it on too
thick, killing off the pretty damsel of Newsom's harp. Not even the white
knight, played by the wistful voice of Bill Callahan, can save the distressed
royal. Every time you find yourself ready to slip into the tale, the orchestra
swoops in to bust up the daydream. The track is further disadvantaged by the
unenviable task of following up Ys' crown jewel: "Sawdust & Diamonds."

Joanna takes center stage for "Sawdust & Diamonds," and her opus magnum steals
the spotlight from every other Ys fairytale. Left alone to tell her story with
just the rudimentary tools of her quirky vocal style and deft harp playing,
Newsom delivers her most beautiful story yet. Gone are the illusions and
allusions, in their place a grit and honesty unexplored by any song in Newsom's
canon. While her lyrics will always rival Colin Meloy's in imagery, in "Sawdust
& Diamonds" she is able to find a realistic and era-less heart without
thought-provoking tongue-twisters and a Wordly Wise vocabulary. The swells of
ringing harp as the tale grows heavy only bring a near-masterpiece to
near-perfection. The emotion channeled by vocal cords and nimble fingers gives
"Sawdust & Diamonds" a pristine and everlasting shine. It never grows tiring.

If there was ever an album fit to be its own play or film, Ys is it. By the
design and vision of Newsom and her rotating cast of indie favorites, Ys surpasses any contemporary album in imagery, prose, and, above all, execution.
No album will ever move you quite like it, and if it weren't for a slight
misstep, it would be perfect in almost every way. No matter what label,
category, or genre you choose to stick Ys into, it will defy it.

1. Emily
2. Monkey & Bear
3. Sawdust & Diamonds
4. Only Skin
5. Cosmia

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