It's no great feat to experiment sonically and stretch musical taxonomy into another "-core" (clarinet-core, pots-and-pans-core, sit-on-a-synth-and-fiddle-core). We aren't afraid of strange, so long as it's strange enough to earn a fucking modifier - fucking out there, fucking bizarre, fucking genius, man. However, the moment we can't rationalize an artist's eccentricity into concrete, tangible terms - political, intellectual, or conceptual - we balk, labeling the artist weird for the sake of weird, and move on.
Such is the fate of Joanna Newsom, the Californian harpist whose approach to songwriting is neither exploratory nor static. She instead layers a dynamic, cinematic sound that begs inquiry - both for its highly structured imagery and its delivery. Lines like, "Though my wrists and my waist seemed so easy to break, still my dear I would have walked you to the edge of the water, and they will recognize all the lines of your face, in the face of the daughter, of the daughter, of my daughter" ring inside the listener not just because of the beautiful imagery, but because of Newsom's delivery, which is wet with candor and vulnerability. With every line her voice quivers, breaks, and smokes as it prepares for flight, and that nakedness is one of the most compelling, endearing elements of the record, and of Newsom's sound.
Musically, the album is driven by Van Dyke Park's orchestral composition and Newsom's harp-playing, both of which compliment the vocals perfectly without ever feeling intrusive. The production of Drag City label-mate and former Sonic Youth member Jim O'Rourke lends the music an engine which, coupled with Newsom's rich narratives, keeps the songs driving forward, deeper and deeper into its creator's naked id.
Not since The Violent Femmes' Hallowed Ground has an album felt so isolated but remained so vital. Ys draws the listener back to the forest into a place where both environment and human interface still play significant roles in daily life. On "Emily," Newsom sings for her missing sister.
"and Emily, I saw you last night by the river, I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water, frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever, in a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror"
There's nothing even remotely dishonest about this record and that sort of sincerity can be difficult to absorb for a listenership reared on rock-star deification. Still, if you can handle it, this is one of those rare albums that manages to transcend its medium and genuinely provoke a definite, tangible reaction - challenging your perception of appropriate artist/listener interaction and restoring faith in the capacity of music to act as a legitimate means of connection between human beings.
9.7 / 10
Posted Jan. 27, 2010, 11:23 p.m.
A brand new song from Joanna Newsom titled "81" has been made available online here. The song is taken from her upcoming new album, the three-disc Have One on Me ...
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