Thursday, August 13, 2009

Joanna Newsom- Ys

There's no better introduction to Ys than its cover, which depicts Joanna Newsom in some kind of medieval parlor. The artwork is ripe with symbols and/or things that we don't really recognize anymore: a crow holding a piece of fruit; a small hand-held scythe; a framed moth held with the pinky finger extended; various flowers. Perhaps most telling of all is the winding path in the background that heads up a distant mountain. There's something fantastical about it all, and the spellbinding orchestral folk epics that Newsom weaves (with the help of her harp, naturally) sound not unlike something that might've been glimpsed in the background of the Lord Of The Rings films.

Indeed, there's a timelessness to Ys that I find hard to qualtify. Which is ironic because its pedigree is unimpeachably modern, like something a music critic or rock snob dreamed up: Van Dyke Parks co-produced and did the orchestral arrangements; Steve Albini recorded the vocals and harp; Jim O'Rourke mixed it; it was mastered at Abbey Road. Yet the music belongs to no obvious era. Joanna Newsom is often lumped in with the freak folk/new psych-folk groups of this decade, but the only thing she has in common, say, Devendra Banhart or Animal Collective's Sung Tongs is a similar atmosphere that recalls late 60s music but doesn't sound retro or vintage. To put it another way, there's no new technology or genre that's emerged since the 60s that was needed to make this music. What needed to happen was for a gifted musician and songwriter like Joanna Newsom to come along.

Ys is made up of five lengthy songs that recall the soundtracks to fantasy epics. Even the lyric booklet has a fantasy look to it, with a design that could pass for a special edition to some long forgotten Tolkien novel. What's more, the paragraphs and paragraphs of lyrics suggest it's some poetry tract from the 15th century with themes and subjects of nature and animals appearing again and again.

Still, the most unique element of Ys is Newsom's voice and harp. The latter perfectly suits the music while the former is going to do more than the long/wordy nature of the songs to turn people off. To put it charitably, her voice is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Detractors describe her as sounding like a little girl who can't really control her voice; fey and affected in a bad way. There is some truth to this, but like most acquired tastes, once you begin to enjoy Newsom's voice, you really begin to enjoy it. Even when she reaches too far and her voice creaks and cracks, this gives it a realistic, passionate edge (in fact, I imagine the naturalist "we do this live and in as few takes as possible" Steve Albini talking her into leaving them in). Yes, the harp and orchestral flourishes may be what draws you in. But its Newsom's voice and lyrics that steal the show, particularly couplets like this from the towering, near 17 minute 'Only Skin':

The cities we passed were a flickering wasteland,
but his hand, in my hand, made them hale and harmless

While down in the lowlands, the crops are all coming;
we have everything

Life is thundering blissful towards death

in a stampede
of his fumbling green gentleness


Some albums were great in the time period they were released but aged badly, fading in both influence and popularity over time (a lot of early 90s electronic music). Other albums were great upon release and managed to live beyond the era or genre they helped define (Nirvana's Nevermind). Rarest of all are the albums that don't really fit in with their era or any specific genre, that have a singular sound and timeless quality. Ys is without a doubt in this category; anyone with a desire for something uniqueshould give it a listen. Actually, might want to make that "a few listens."