Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City 2xLP)
Whoa whoa whoa wait wait wait...I'm on YOUR side, I swear. Don't get me wrong...I didn't buy the hype at first, and when I say at first I mean when "The Milk-Eyed Mender" came out in 2004. Back when it was cool to want to like things named Devendra Banhart and Will Oldham, I downloaded "Mender" to check out what all the neo-new-pseudo psych-folk scene was aboot. And I hated it with a force unlike anything ever before. The vocals? I wanted to stomp on my own throat they were so irritating. But for some reason I'm drawn to things I hate (why else would I review half the stuff I do on this site? Nyuk nyuk) and while I resigned myself to never going back to "Mender", I did stay tuned to the news coming around about Joanna Newsom's 2006 opus, "Ys". It had all the makings of things I loved and hated so it was sure to be a true test of bipolarity or what have you. Jim O'Rourke and Steve Albini handling the recording, producing and mixing? Van Dyke Parks doing string arrangements? Five songs totaling almost an hour of playing time? Amazing. How could it not be incredible? Even if I had initial misgivings (to say the least) about the artist producing the work, this was just going to be the most ridiculous, impossible, over-the-top vortex of an album, where bad was good and left was up and down was right. It HAD to be. Was it? Well, yes and no. No because, at the end of the day, it really was the baffling iconoclast I'd hoped it to be. Yes because, at the end of the day, it's just a really incredible album.
Considering I'm talking about it over a month after it came out (I had to wait for Drag City to re-stock the 2xLP version - you think I'm going to pay good money for this and not have it on vinyl?), I'm going to assume you read all the Pitchfork and Wire cover stories about the concept of the album and what the non-word "Ys" means and all that good stuff. Actually this late into the game I should just assume you've already heard the record. It's not like I can bring anything new to the table. I've listened to the whole album at least five times but it's still tough to distinguish tracks...I feel myself going on autopilot as soon as I push play and then just living free with the notes. It's hard to pay attention to things like track divisions when there's so much other activity to be enraptured by - Newsom's voice (which sounds far more angelic and pleasant on "Ys" than I remember on any previous recording), her harp playing like dew drops falling from your eyelashes to your cheeks, and the tremendously understated performance of Parks' full 32-piece orchestra that never onces dares to upstage the songstress herself. Throughout all five tracks Newsom is almost constantly reciting her fairytale lyrics, which do border sometimes on the fringes of over-wordiness, but almost always are delightful and captivating. She ranges from a near-speaking tone to full-blown wailing but never once arches into the territory of irritation (praise be!). "Emily" and "Only Skin" are the album's longest tracks at 12 and 17 minutes respectively, but never once feel drawn-out or overwrought. The contrary, in fact - Newsom's narrative is so inviting that you're willing to wait an infinite number of minutes as long as she reaches a conclusion. And when she does, does she ever. They're also hands down my favorite tracks on the album: the former has potentially the most back-breaking refrain (I'd say chorus but I think it's only repeated twice in the whole song) ever put to tape all year while the latter piles on contributions from (Smog)'s Bill Callahan on vocals, Van Dyke Parks himself on accordion and Don Heffington on percussion and still never manages to sound even the slightest bit overdone or intrusive - it's entirely possible to listen to all 17 minutes and hear only Newsom if you so choose. And it's also a gorgeous, lush, borderline brilliant piece of music. Tracks two and three are both near-10-minute songs: "Monkey & Bear" is a playful anecdotal hymn involving...a monkey and a bear that begs to be listened to while reading along with the lyrics printed in the liner notes and "Sawdust & Diamonds" is the calmest of the bunch as Newsom's harp emitting consistently frollicking drizzles that sound more like ragas from heaven than anything else. Album closing "Cosmia" is notable for Matt Cartsonis' banjo contributions and Newsom's strained, touching yelp of "and I miss your precious heart". After about the three minute mark (after the clack-clack-clacking that sounds like a typewriter pounding out letters or a conductor tapping his baton) the song - and thus the album - begin a remarkable denouement that really is more like an ascent if anything, and provides a remarkable finish entirely befitting the fifty-odd minutes that preceded it.
There's a strong scent of Americana about "Ys", at least Americana as it exists in the present day. At least a large portion of that is due to the presence of Van Dyke Parks' string arrangements which helped create one of the greatest Americana sounds of all time in Brian Wilson's "Smile", but also due to the fact that Joanna Newsom's work on the harp reminds me of another great American string manipulator in John Fahey, believe it or not. And, to keep going with the similarities, Fahey recorded at least a couple of albums dedicated solely to interpretations of Christmas caroling standards. Well Newsom may have done him one better by inventing songs that sound like Christmas carols hitherto unheard of and only now being discovered and released. Sure Newsom's lyrics and the album's concept have absolutely nothing to do with the day Christ was born, but they're drenched in the same kind of fantastic, wistful story-telling that makes em both pertinent and heart-warming no matter how many times you hear em. Did I get my noise cred revoked yet? Then my work here is done.