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Joanna Newsom - Ys

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Artist: Joanna Newsom

Album: Ys

Label: Drag City

Review date: Nov. 9, 2006

Ys is one of those rare sophomore albums that shatters exceedingly high expectations. Joanna Newsom’s debut cemented her reputation as one of the two or three archetypal performers in the loosely defined genre that has unfortunately come to be called “freak folk.” Rumor has it that The Milk-Eyed Mender has become Drag City’s best-selling album ever, so it’s no surprise that the label pulled out all the stops for this follow-up. Steve Albini recorded the harp and vocal tracks, with orchestration arranged and conducted after the fact by Van Dyke Parks. The album was mixed by Jim O’Rourke and mastered at Abbey Road. There’s little doubt that all of those big names cost a small fortune, but it was well worth the expense.

Joanna Newsom’s songwriting abilities have increased considerably since she recorded her first album. The five very long tracks that make up Ys are absolutely spilling over with musical and lyrical ideas. Once again her diction seems fanciful and strange but, for all the talk of belfries and barrows, meteors and pharaohs, sea-cows and hollyhocks, her true subject matter is very personal. The songs sound like fairy tales until you listen to them closely and realize that they’re actually about her family members, about falling in love or about the death of a pet. Even “Monkey & Bear,” an anthropomorphic story about escaped circus animals, seems obliquely autobiographic.

Van Dyke Parks, whose wonderful 1968 album Song Cycle touches on numerous traditional American music styles, turns out to be the perfect complement to an artist who claims Appalachian ballad singer Texas Gladden as her biggest influence. Folk purists will be happy to hear that parts of the album – including the entirety of the centerpiece “Sawdust & Diamonds” – remain untouched by Parks’ hand. But his playful accompaniment adds vibrancy to the songs, especially in the few brief moments when an accordion, banjo or jew's harp suddenly comes in out of the blue. His lush string arrangements flesh out Newsom’s infectious vocal melodies and also act as counterpoint to her intricate harp rhythms.

If it wasn’t already clear that Joanna Newsom – a singer-songwriter who accompanies herself on the harp – is a risk taker and a maverick, now she’s released a collection of songs that all push the 10-minute mark and packaged it with cover art that practically begs for mockery. The fact that she’s been taken so seriously thus far is a testament to her singular talent. Unabashedly opulent and tremendously emotional, Ys will certainly heighten Joanna Newsom’s already considerable reputation.

By Rob Hatch-Miller

Other Reviews of Joanna Newsom

The Milk-Eyed Mender

Have One On Me

Read More

View all articles by Rob Hatch-Miller

Find out more about Drag City

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