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    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    Review #4: Ys by Joanna Newsom

    Ys - Joanna Newsom
    (Drag City)

    My new obsession: pairing albums with their ideal settings. Since getting an MP3 player, I’ve been transporting my catalogue around the city and beyond, experimenting with how my surroundings affect my listening experience. The effect has been huge, heavily influencing how I hear the songs and how they affect me. Meandering through the woods would feel incomplete now without Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House. I can hardly hit the weight room without Girl Talk’s Night Ripper or Jay-Z’s The Blueprint. I’ve bopped down the length of Valencia Street, caffeine-high and taco-stuffed, so many times to TV On The Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain that I hear the drum attack of “A Method” even in the silence.

    But Joanna Newsom’s sophomore album, Ys, proved a more elusive fit. Since way back in August, it’s beguiled and confounded me. I brought it with me to the beach, to take in the sandy knolls and icy tides. It accompanied me into the neon squalor of past-midnight SoMa walks. I’d listen to it over and over on the BART, studying faces as the train huffed into Berkeley. It was always magnificent no matter where I was, but it wasn’t until I went hiking up Twin Peaks that it really bloomed. There, overlooking the patchwork collage of rooftops and hilltops below, it really overwhelmed me. Here was an album that was so singular, so intricately arranged, so far removed from everything else I’ve heard, it literally took me to another plane.

    Ys, like Newsom, is so many things at once: delicate, elegant, cosmic, fanciful, enchanting, enchanted. But its most defining characteristic is its audacity. Five songs sprawling through fifty-five minutes, the shortest piece over seven minutes long (“Cosmia”) and the longest nearly seventeen (“Only Skin”). It’s a hell of a conceit for a twenty-four-year-old singer releasing her second album. It’s a hell of a conceit for any singer. At any turn, it could’ve easily sunk into stodgy overindulgence, but miraculously, every word and every heartfelt harp-pluck sound necessary. Every feature of the record is out-and-out outstanding.

    Newsom’s voice, for one, has become even lovelier and more dynamic, softening the sometimes-yelp of The Milk-Eyed Mender. It has a theatricality and passion that grant her phrasings an instant emotion. In fact, her vocal style is engaging enough here that I’d listen to her sing just about anything short of “Mmmbop.” (Well, actually…) But there’s no need to make such concessions. Once again, her lyrics turn out to be just as bravely and masterfully unique as her delivery. In those five songs, she covers so much territory with pushpin precision. It’s poetry in the loftiest sense of the word, with bracing imagery and wordplay that are almost Dickinsonian at times. It’s impossible to choose a favorite line if only because of how inextricably the lines are bound together. Consider the mastery of this sample verse from “Only Skin” for example though:

    you froze in your sand shoal,
    prayed for your poor soul,
    sky was a bread roll, soaking in a milk-bowl
    and when the bread broke, fell in bricks of wet smoke,
    my sleeping heart woke and my waking heart spoke

    The music too deserves the highest honor, because as expected, Newsom’s harp skills are appropriately heavenly. However, the biggest leap forward from her debut is the addition of Van Dyke Parks’ orchestral string arrangements. They give the sound an understated classicism, a symphonic grace that makes all the other elements that much more exquisite by association. Throw in the dream team collaborators of Steve Albini recording, Jim O’Rourke producing, and Newsom’s beau Bill Callahan (!!!!) lending his always-welcome vocals to four verses, and Ys starts to seem untouchable.

    I sat along the precipice of Twin Peaks for hours, jotting into the margins of a weathered notebook, playing the album over and over that late-summer day. Every time, it astounded and disarmed me; every time, it managed to transport me into some more phantasmagoric galaxy. I tried my best to put down my impressions into words, to construct an opinion nearly as expert as this music. But I was left with a flipbook of false starts and first lines, draft after draft of ineffable failures. It was too majestic; I was too ineloquent. As I left the hill that gazed over a whole cityscape though, I knew there was at least one more setting where Ys would be entirely essential: topping the list of the best albums of 2006. 9.3/10
    [Buy it]

    * MP3: "Only Skin" (Live) - Joanna Newsom from London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2005 (via Milky Moon)
    * MP3: "Peach, Plum, Pear" - Final Fantasy [Buy other Final Fantasy]

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