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A new Joanna Newsom album - yes! Well actually, Ys. Pronounced ''ees.'' It's the title of an almost unspeakably incredible new Joanna Newsom album. Five songs, fifty-five minutes, one what-an-album! Ys is to Ms. Newsom a dream collaboration between her voice and harp and a full orchestra - a sound many of us fans have thought we were hearing when listening with closed eyes at her concert performances. Songs familiar to Joanna's following are a big part of Ys, having been performed in concert over the past year - but not with the arrangements you'll find on four of the five songs here. The wide-screen beauty of Ys is due to, among other things, a scrupulously all-analog production involving forty-odd tracks spread over two synched-up 24-track tape machines, mixed to tape and mastered at Abbey Road, home of the all-analog mastering path!
Joanna Newsom's voice--a piercing flutter that's pitched somewhere between Björk and a hand brake--is an acquired taste. But to the uninitiated, it's not nearly as impenetrable as her cosmic poetry or, for that matter, baroque music. The 24-year-old Californian harpist's second album is a five-track concept piece loosely based on its namesake, the mythological drowned city of the Bretons. We say "loosely" because she leaves plenty of room for digressions on meteoroids and birds flying into windows. While Ys was recorded by minimalist Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey), it includes lush string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks (Brian Wilson) and the final mix was done by sonic experimentalist Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth, Tortoise). The result is an album that sounds unlike anything else. And despite containing spectacularly beguiling songs that stretch out past 15 minutes, every second seems to drip with magic. You certainly don't get that with Ashlee Simpson. --Aidin Vaziri
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Top Customer Reviews
I can't remember the last time I heard an album that seemed to reinvent the possibilities in music itself. I'd like to say it's a ground-breaking album but the style is too 'of itself', creating its own hermetically sealed universe into which it allows us to teleport;so it's hard to see it having much influence on the wider musical world.
I recommend if at all possible that you try and listen to the album in a distraction free environment (yes I'm talking darkened room, phone off-the-hook) it's worth the effort.
Some listeners have referred to the several listens it takes to get in to the album, I found it took about a minute and a half.
Is it folk, prose-poetry,classical or just great pop music? There are perhaps elements of all and more.
A lot is sometimes made of how unusual her voice is, but to to be honest it is more distinctive than strange and it would be fair to say that her singing has become richer and more resonant than on her earlier works(I honestly think that most critics are still reviewing the way she sounded on "The Milkeyed Mender" but she has moved on since then, while still retaining her unique sound).
The album opens with "Emily" a song so rich in imagery and strong in melody it would justify the purchase of the album on its own, conjuring visions of meteorites, skimming stones and raging seas.Read more ›
I'm not going to review every track individually because there is a lot to say. However, on an album with just five songs it is quite possible. The first song is probably the most appealing. It is a song called "Emily". It seems nostalgic and is about a loved one (I think her sister?) who chose a different path in life but a path Joanna seems encouraged to understand and appreciate. The only repeated lines, possibly even considered the chorus, are about the differences between a meteor, a meteorite, and a meteoroid.Read more ›
(backing vocals from Smog singer's bill callahan on "Only skin")
And she strays from conventional freakfolk in her second album, "Ys," by sticking to sprawling, intricate songs that clock in at about ten minutes average, and enhancing her folky sound with... an orchestra. It's a bit like listening to an acid-tripping fairy tell you her life story.
It opens with "Emily," a gentle little ballad that works itself up in a flow of violins. "The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow/Set to the sky in a flying spree, for the sport over the pharaoh," Newsom warbles. There's a bittersweet note to the hints of loss, but Newsom also fills it with childish wonderment at the world.
Then it's time for interspecies romance in the rippling, meandering story-song "Monkey and Bear," before trickling into "Sawdust and Diamonds." Unlike the shining density of the other songs, this one is stripped down -- it's just a shimmering harp melody, and Newsom crooning softly over it.
Newsom wraps things up nicely in the final two songs. "Only Skin" is a gently expanding ballad that sounds like a medieval song, with an experimental twist. And finally there is "Cosmia," a colourful mishmash of harp, squealing violins, and Bjorkian vocals. "Dry rose petals, red round circles/Frame your eyes, and stain your knuckles..."
Supposedly "Ys" is a loose concept album, about the legendary sunken island -- a bit difference from her Narnian references in her first album. But taken only for itself, "Ys" is a magical experience, as Newsom spins song-stories about pastoral grandeur and magical nature.
Newsom also expands her music in this.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
My first exposure to Joanna Newsom came through her previous solo album, THE MILK-EYED MENDER, which while similar to YS was far less ambitious and epic. YS is to THE MILK-EYED MENDER what Van Morrison's ASTRAL WEEKS was to BLOWIN' YOUR MIND, simultaneously an ambitious expansion of the possibilities in the previous work and an attempt to produce something truly epic and unique. And the comparison to Morris is apt. Although YS contains only five songs, it clocks in at over 50 minutes, but in those 50 minutes there are no instrumental breaks. The only other performer I know who has recorded several songs that were as long as the ones on YS and featured singing through their entire length is Van Morrison. The songs on YS don't sound like "Listen to the Lion," but it might be the closest musical equivalent.
These songs are epic, theatrical, and expansive. And the word "unique" can't be applied too sparingly. The instrumentation alone sets it apart. Newsom's astonishing harp dominates every track, supplemented magnificently with Parks's wonderful strings, but the oddest instruments can sometimes intrude, like the banjo that pops up in "Only Skin" or the Jew's harp in "Cosmia." Some listeners, especially indie rock fans, are going to have a problem with the overall sound. No drums, no guitars, no bass, only occasional keyboards, but a lot of harp and strings. The result isn't something you can dance to. It isn't even something that you can hum to yourself. But the five songs here contain universes of marvelous, quirky, delightful musical ideas.
The lyrics are perfectly suited to the music and are frequently compelling, if not quite as overwhelming as the music. All of the songs are very strong compositions, which is an absolute necessity when an album features only five of them. The one thing that some people have trouble with Joanna Newsom is her voice. I can fully sympathize with this, because it took me a long time to accustom my ears to her singing. Like everything else, her voice is more than a tad different. Some people compare it to a harsher version of Bjork, but while her voice possesses some of the childishness that one sometimes hears in Bjork, some other comparison always seemed to be more apt. To me, she sounds very much like a precocious child attempting to mimic Billie Holliday. Listen to the way she mouths "darling" in "Monkey & Bear" and tell me that doesn't sound like a talented child imitating Lady Blue. It took me quite a while before I actually liked Newsom's voice. It isn't in any traditional sense a good singing voice, but once one accustoms oneself to it, it seems perfectly suited to her music.
This isn't an album for anyone. It is a ferociously sophisticated work. For want of a better term, it might be termed Alt-Folk. I was praising this to my daughter who is in college in another state. She asked what I would compare the album to. I said the closest might be Lorena McKennitt, but in fact she sounds as much like Lorena McKennitt as the latter does to Dead Can Dance, which basically means it is a worthless comparison. If you are an adventurous listener, love exploring something that is truly unique and different, I heartily recommend this album. For me it is one of the musical highlights of the year.
Well first and foremost, it has to do with Newsom's voice. If you've never heard Joanna in action, I encourage you to stop reading this very minute and click on one of the songs above. Really. Do it. Because, chances are this will be the dealbreaker. The first time I heard a sample , I rated her voice in the bearable-to-slightly-intriguing range. Today, I'm rather fond of the way she warbles her poetic verses. But my girlfriend prefers nails on a chalkboard than to being within earshot, no matter how many times I try to subliminally influence her otherwise.
If you can get past Newsom's voice, the second hurdle requires making a mental commitment to listening to this cd at HOME. This is not the type of cd you can play at a party if you want to keep your friends. And the songs are much too long for the standard car ride unless you're anticipating traffic. So when you buy this disc, you need to mentally donate at least one hour of time to dressing up as Romeo or Juliet, laying down in a bean bag chair, and letting Newsom take you into another world. Well maybe you don't need to dress up, but it would really help with the ambiance.
If you can envision getting this far, I'd say this cd is a safe bet. The strings and instrumentation are outstanding, and you will no doubt come to admire the depth and breadth of each song. Each song starts off at a relatively slow pace before reaching a powerful crescendo that justifies the wait. Furthermore, there isn't a single dud on this album, which is rare for mosts discs these days(though it does only have 5 songs). However, if you can't get past the first two steps, I'd suggest you take my advice and stay clear of this one for your own sake and for the sake of your relationship (thanks Joanna).
What propels this record is the unerring sense of melody, and its close connection to lyrics that are both rhapsodic and narrative. The rich orchestral arrangements help and make for a distinctive record, but I feel that the record would have been equally good had she been accompanied by her harp alone. Newsom will not age like those second-rate classical pianists and groups repackaging classical influences in their fast-aging pop hits (who can listen to Emerson Lake and Palmer any more, or Tori Amos???). Twenty years from now, this music will be as interesting, ambitious and anachronistic as it is today.
With this album Joanna Newsom has reached into a next level of music and the magnitude of the beauty and wonder that she causes is staggering. Best album i've heard in years.