Joanna Newsom – Ys

Joanna NewsomThere’s plenty that should annoy me (and probably lots of people) about Joanna Newsom. First of all, she sings (and looks like) a pixie. That is a rather shrill, childlike pixie. Two, she plays the harp, a beautiful instrument indeed, but enough to sustain an album. Third, Ys (pronounced Ee-s, her second album) is only 5 tracks long, the shortest being 7 minutes long and the longest is almost 17!. Yet despite all this, I took the plunge and bought this album amidst the glowing praise for it. Initially, Joanna had been written off as some kind of acoustic version of Bjork with a fixation on fairytales. But this album seems to have surpassed all the bad feeling towards her. It’s an album of staggering ambition, that’s aided by three people. Firstly, Van Dykes Park (former collaborator of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys), who scored the lush orchestral arrangements of the album. Secondly, Steve Albini (infamous misanthropic git who produced albums by Nirvana and the Pixies) produced the album. Thirdly, Jim O’Rourke (former member of Sonic Youth and Wilco collaborator) who mixed and engineered the album. With that kind of line-up, you can’t fail really.

The songs of Ys are a million miles away from the verse/chorus/verse dynamics of so many bands. But then again, if you’re going to write a song like Emily which is 12 minutes long, that dynamic will get old quickly. It chops and changes from harsh orchestral stabs to smooth and shimmering strings that just sound so soothing. “Monkey& Bear” sounds wonderful, as the orchestra skips and bounds, which fits perfectly with lyrical theme of being in the forest. If you read the lyric booklet, then you’ll see how much depth, Joanna get’s into with creating these fables and tales. “Sawdust and Diamonds” starts with some delicate harp playing and minimal orchestration. It showed me what can be done with just Joanna’s voice and her harp; it’s beautifully captivating. It’s 9 minutes plus length just flows by. “Only Skin” sags a bit during it’s 16 minutes lenght, but there’s enough variation and surprises that kept me interested, especially when the harmonies come in towards the end. “Cosmia” is the sortest track on the album, which is probably best. The dreamy atmosphere at the start gives away to a couple of changes in tempo which again, keep things interesting.

Ys is going to be one of those albums that will divide people. Just like Anthony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now, people maybe be put off by the voice they hear. I found on this album the music changes with Joanna’s voice; soft and smooth sometimes, loud and harsh in others. It’d also be a diservice to say the sound is down to her production all star line up; I get the feeling that the visions behind this album is all hers. So, if you fancy something pretty different then Ys will give you that. It’s not going to be an easy album to love; if you like an album that lays it’s heart on it’s sleeve on the first listen, then Ys will probably piss you off. But if you like an album you can listen to again and again, then this is something you’ll gradually learn to love.

Joanna Newsom interview (talking pish frankly, but at least this will give you an idea about who I’m blathering about):

 

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