Joanna Newsom

By - Nov 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Erin Wolf


When one insists on being called a “harper” rather than a harpist and becomes peeved when told that one sounds “childlike” (“Bjork-ish,” too) even though the description is nail-on-the-head, it’s obvious one’s perception of oneself is a tad bit off-kilter. Some would call this stubborn, some would call it quirky; most would call it self-absorbed.

This self-absorption, though, is just what makes Joanna Newsom’s music work. Her first two EPs and full-length album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, were studies of self-absorption, created from a world not known to anyone other than the 24-year-old herself, characterized by music and lyrics straight out of the writings of Homer and a “childlike” voice more like a infantile gnome with a bad cold piped in between harp pluckings. To write music that sounds centuries old, the writer must obviously not be spending too much time watching television.

Going from the intriguing base that is her first album, Newsom’s latest, Ys, is a wash of strings and rich orchestral sounds, surrounding the ever-plucky “harper’s” own string manipulations and warbling. Ys was produced and mixed by Steve Albini (!) and Jim O’Rourke, and adding even more magical elements with string arrangements was Van Dyke Parks of Beach Boys fame.

Blending lyrics that are pure poetry (“there is a rusty light on the pines tonight / sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow / down into the bones of the birches and the spires of the churches”) and music arranged in a manner that resembles an old school Disney score takes incredible patience and craft. It also takes incredible patience on the listener’s part, as most of the songs clock in between 7 and 17 minutes long.

It is worth it to be patient with Ys, though. It is an album meant to be reflected upon, for it has definite stories to tell. There’s a slim to none chance that the five songs featured here will ever make it to Top 40 radio, but this is just exemplary of the diamond in the rough quality Ys possesses.

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