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Music Review: Joanna Newsom – Ys

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I have a friend – well, a work colleague – who calls Joanna Newsom "that woman with the irritating, squeaky voice". And that, unfortunately, seemed to be the consensus the general public reached after the release of the harpist's first album, The Milk Eyed Mender. Like Dylan, or even Ella Fitzgerald, some people can't seem to get past the voice, filled with flourishes and delivered with a childlike diction. The reaction is all the more odd, considering the unnatural vocal gymnastics people seem willing to forgive – even encourage – in their pop acts; think the diva antics of Aguilera, Carey and Co., seemingly able to string single syllables over a whole octave.

At its root, the subtext of the argument is the battle between "art" and "populism". The fact that Newsom doesn't craft pop tunes to soundtrack late night strip-clubs or produce pompous power ballads marks her out as an "artist" and so, by implication, necessarily "difficult", "kooky" and "weird". As if these were bad things. Newsom's most obvious recent cultural reference point is Kate Bush, a woman somehow capable of cultivating popularity, as she walks a tightrope between the opposing sides. Deconstruct the likes of 'Wuthering Heights' and you'll find high art concepts, skillfully hidden under a sheen of pop froth.

That quirky voice is still gloriously in evidence on Ys, but Joanna has moved towards a more acceptable middle-ground. Tempered somewhat, it's a little less rough around the edges and becomes the voice hinted at on the softer, more delicate moments of The Milk Eyed Mender. There's no doubt Ys is aided by bigger production values and a much greater sense of ambition. Consisting of only five songs – the shortest of which is a mere seven minutes; the longest, a sixteen minute epic – Newsom has seemingly adopted Brian Wilson's pocket symphony ethos to produce an alt-folk Smile. Those nods towards Smile are apt, and not just for the involvement of Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks in the orchestral arrangements, because each track on Ys is full of returning tropes and themes, the songs becoming more like classical suites.

But, lest you think that Newsom is any less barking than you previously thought, there's the near ten minutes of "Monkey And Bear". Starting out sounding like an out-take from a classic Disney movie circa Sleeping Beauty, it's a slightly disturbing story about the love between a, yes, monkey and a bear that takes on a kind of Peter And The Wolf orchestrated quality. It's easily the weirdest track on Ys, and yet, it most obviously flags Newsom's talent for involving storytelling and lyrical inventiveness. I mean, where else can you find spelunking bears in pop music?

Ys represents a vast leap forward for Joanna Newsom, no longer merely the wonky voiced harpist of public perception, she's blossomed into a unique and (hopefully) much-valued talent. It's unlikely, in today's quick-fix iPod and MTV2 generation, that there's much room for an album that contains no possible singles, concerns itself with such abstract and off-kilter subject matter as comets and monkey-bear love, and requires careful attention to unlock its hidden layers of beauty. Ys may not be clasped to the public's collective bosom, but, like all the Dylans and Fitzgeralds before her, Newsom deserves to be seen as much more than just "art".

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About Greg Smyth

  • Mark Saleski

    interesting stuff greg. her voice kinda reminds me of Victora Williams.

  • Petersteen

    You said it all…I have a hard time showing people her stuff for exactly the same reasons you stated. To enjoy this music is to sit back and actually try and hear something new. This is the opposit of the single driven music scene we have seen lately.

  • JoannaFanna

    Being the most innovative and exciting artist I’ve discovered in years, I can scarcely wait to hear Joanna’s new material – Thanks for your words Greg, makes me want it all the more !!

    Take care and long live Ms newsom and her truly fantastic music-making

  • Oldstyle

    The Milk Eyed Mender is one of my favorite albums of all time. Brilliant lyrics and dreamy harp overcome her squeaky voice to make for some of the hardest songs to get out of my head in years. Ys is completelty different. They produced and orchestrated this album, taking away the impact of the harp. Worse, they tried to teach Joanna to to sing, taking much of the emotion out of her voice while she obviously struggled to sound more mainstream. The songs are over-written, over-produced and overdone. She could have done much more with much less.

  • Michael Engelbrecht

    I´m a journalist from Germany, so i could hear this music for some weeks now. It is terrific masterpiece, it belongs (for me) to the highlights of 2006 (along with Scott Walker´s “The Drift” , Lambchop´s “Damaged and a few others).But you really have to dive deep into this music, not look for the quick trick. It´s something I have never heared before. I read (with a smile on my face) that Joanna Newsom is a big fan of Robert Wyatt´s “Rock Bottom” – a good sound/role model for unique soudnscapes!

  • Mark Saleski

    my friend who operates the cd room at our local bookstore says that Newsom’s music gets more customer comments than any other….and he play some crazy stuff on the stereo there!

  • skierpage

    If you can stand Joanna Newsom (just watch “The Sprout and the Bean” video several times over two days to decide) then Ys will grow on you. The marvellous lyrics/poetry dominate the music and orchestrations, so it’s somewhat unbalanced. But in tonight’s concert, her and her band’s performance of the song cycle was staggeringly great.

  • Lopegus

    Who actually wrote the song “Emily?” It is a powerful work of art. I hope if it was not Ms. Newsom that the author gets some recognition and credit.

  • no

    Emily is about Newsom’s sister, who helped with backing vocals—so, I think Newsom wrote it.

  • Jonathan Hill

    Anna Newsom live in Brussels 19 April 2007. One hour later.

    Every now and again, a word rediscovers its original, literal meaning. I have just been in a room with 1,000 people who held their breath for 90 minutes. Anna Newsom. ‘Breathtaking.’

    It would be pointless even to try to describe the music. All the familiar references – fron Bjork to Joni Mitchel – are redundant. Let me refer to just one moment. 47 seconds into “Sawdust and Diamonds”, she breaks into that roll of the strings – that hypnotic circling of water – and you catch your breath once again. A few seconds of pure magic, and, again, a word rediscovers its original meaning. No – that rolling of the strings, 47 seconds in, was like a whole new word that you were discovering for the first time.

    As the show unfolded, three thoughts shuffled into my mind at different moments: ‘Cloud Atlas’, Richard Dawkins, and Iraq.

    Like the story in ‘Cloud Atlas’, Newsom’s music seems to span three centuries or more. One moment, she is all renaissance poise, cool and statuesque – the next she is breathy soul, a hint of sex, here and now.

    I imagined Richard Dawkins trudging off to the bar in a sulk. He had unexpectedly witnessed something that defied any rational, scientific explanation. How on this earth did natural selection produce this music?

    My thoughts of Iraq were trite, and I embarrass myself. It’s the old, old question: how can something as beautiful as tonight’s performance exist when a couple of thousand miles away more than 200 people have just died in the latest round of suicide attacks? I know. I’m sorry.

    In all of Newsom’s performance, something uniquely American seems to be on display. Only American artists seem to refer so often to nature: flowers, rivers, the moon. As my friend said to me after the show, we Europeans are so urbanised.

    Would all of this be so intoxicating were she not so pretty? It’s a question that muddies the waters; it’s an itch between the shoulder-blades. I have concluded that it’s simply part of her show: she’s a rock n’ roll performer, and the sight and sound of her all belongs to one and the same offering. Can you truly divorce her words and chords from her smile and impish banter? No, I don’t think you can. Just enjoy the whole.

  • stickopotomus

    jimmy hendrex, bob dylan, billy holoday, of today!
    wonder what shes going to come up with next!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!