Joanna Newsom Ys
/The Ys Street Band Drag City
Joanna Newsom is not a jazz singer, to be sure. But neither is she a pop singer, nor simply a folk singer, even one with the back-handedly complimentary "freak sobriquet inserted as a prefix. No, Joanna Newsom is a force of nature, the kind of conduit to ancient musical and lyrical verities that appears from time to time, to grace those who listen with a glimpse of something they never had yet feel they have lost. Her album Ys (Drag City, 2006), pronounced "ees," has been one of the most written-about in recent memory, but the recent release of a 3-song follow up EP, Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (the pun seems inevitable and yet deserving of admiration), provides a good excuse to revisit its wonders once more.
Pleasant though it is, nothing on Newsom's spare debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004), can prepare the listener for the sheer transporting majesty of Ys. The album consists of five long, winding Newsom originals, on which her impressive concert harp playing is augmented by orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, co-conspirator on Brian Wilson's once-tragic, now-triumphant Smile (Nonesuch Records, 2004) project. The music deftly incorporates folk, classical and jazz influences into an original style that feels timeless: there are moments when one feels these could be 500-year old madrigals, until a lyrical mention of "airplanes belies that fancy.
Parks' arrangements are gorgeous, ranging from astringent string stabs to emotional swells to folksy banjo-and-jaw-harp interludes as they follow the febrile meanderings of Newsom's intensely poetical lyrics. Arpeggiated harp figures continually bob up and down through the orchestral arrangements like ocean buoys, an apt metaphor for an album seemingly obsessed with water in all its mundane and mystical guises (the album's title refers to a mythical flooded city in Brittany, France).
Newsom's voice has been described as an acquired taste, an untamed and unholy cross between Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Kate Bush and Popeye's love-interest, Olive Oyl. But while Newsom's singing is certainly unmistakable (the "squeaks with which she occasionally begins a line could pop the cork out of a wine bottle at 50 feet), her phrasing and emoting are always pitch-perfect for her songs, which feature beautifully long-limbed melodies that evolve over their 7-17 minute running times. And no one but Newsom could adequately deliver her lyrics, some so lovely that they could be printed and read with pleasure without music.
"Emily is the track which comes the closest to jazz, the overall feel reminiscent of Billie Holiday singing art songs at a lost with-strings session, a plucked bass gently walking alongside Newsom's harp. But the closest touchstone I can think of is another genre-spanning singer-songwriter classic: Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (Warner Bros, 1968). Like Morrison's, Newsom's singing carries with it an almost ecstatic longing for a past that never really happened, yet lingers on the fringes of memory with a tangible weightiness. There are even times when she employs the same technique of repetition (see Morrison's "Beside You with its "you breathe in, you breathe out mantra) to heighten the emotional tension, as in "Emily 's "meteorite refrain with its palimpsest-like rephrasing.
The closing "Cosmia is the most straightforward tune on the album, and the most clearly folk-like, with the strongest (albeit still only implied) beat and lament for the tragic loss of a friend. "Cosmia is also the one song from Ys that is reprised on the new EP, recorded live in the studio with Newsom's road band: Ryan Francesconi on tamboura and guitar, Dan Cantrell on accordion and saw, Neal Morgan on drums, and Kevin Barker on banjo and guitar. Also included is "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie from The Milk-Eyed Mender , and a new song, "Colleen .
I initially approached the EP with some trepidation; was the magic of Ys dependent on Parks' orchestral arrangements, or on the presence of Steve Albini's wonderfully close recording? Comparison of the two "Cosmia s answers in the negative: even in this comparatively stripped-down and live arrangement, Newsom's gift for melodic and lyrical invention dazzles. Best of all is "Colleen," a jig-like folky stomper that continues the oceanic obsession, incorporating a near-drowning, whales, amnesia, and the tension between primal and civilized knowledge that Ys also explored.
Ys presented Joanna Newsom as one of the most astonishing artists recording today, one with the power to entrance a wide range of listeners. In comparison, the Joanna Newsom And The Ys Street Band EP could be dismissed as a stop-gap if not for "Colleen," one of her best songs and hopefully a harbinger of the quality of Newsom's next major work.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Emily; Monkey and Bear; Sawdust and Diamonds; Only Skin; Cosmia.
Personnel: Joanna Newsom: harp; Van Dyke Parks: orchestral arrangements.
The Ys Street Band
Tracks: Colleen; Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie; Cosmia.
Personnel: Joanna Newsom: harp; Ryan Francesconi: tamboura and guitar; Dan Cantrell: accordion and saw; Neal Morgan: drums; Kevin Barker: banjo and guitar.