JOANNA NEWSOM > Ys

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Joanna Newsom’s fanciful gothic folk sound has no real contemporary musical parallel. Neither does her brittle, sweetly shrill warble-perhaps the closest analogies are the eccentric singing styles of Kate Bush or Bjork, but even they don’t approach her cracked, childlike vocal instrument.Label: DRAG CITY
[RATING: 3.5]

Joanna Newsom’s fanciful gothic folk sound has no real contemporary musical parallel. Neither does her brittle, sweetly shrill warble-perhaps the closest analogies are the eccentric singing styles of Kate Bush or Bjork, but even they don’t approach her cracked, childlike vocal instrument.

Ys (pronounced “ees”) epitomizes the meaning of embellishment-just five songs stretch across 55 minutes. Newsom’s harp-laden reveries are clothed in airy orchestral flourishes and born aloft upon French horns, trumpets, dulcimer, marimba and strings, a far more ornate affair than her 2004 Drag City debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender.

Newsom puts her collegiate creative writing training to good use, unfurling fantasies that are equally bewitching and indecipherable. The songs defy easy interpretation (the most lucid, “Monkey and Bear,” seems to tell a tale of escape from the circus), and that’s just the point-the whimsical, archaic-sounding language itself captivates the ear. She even manages to make a cumbersome word like “hydrocephalitic” sound remarkably light and lilting.

That the harp-rather than, say, the guitar-is Newsom’s primary instrument profoundly shapes her baroque, meandering style. For Ys, Steve Albini captured her delicate staccato plucking and singing first, and Van Dyke Parks later added his orchestral arrangements. The result is that Newsom’s intimate performances are front-and-center, while her accompaniment is sometimes little more than a glimmer, swelling from nowhere and hovering daintily, before drifting away.

The album artwork-a regal portrait of Newsom painted with 16th century techniques paired with the embossed, gold-gilded cover of a medieval tome-completes the fairy tale. Newsom’s medieval world, though an acquired taste, is a place of vastly eccentric beauty.

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