Joanna Newsom

(Drag City)

By: Brandon Forbes

"Emily Part I"

It’s easy to imagine the planets aligning to bring the listening public Joanna Newsom’s latest masterpiece. With an album cover painted by Benjamin A. Vierling depicting the harpist as some kind of Renaissance muse, the record speaks to an astrological interpretation before you even put it on, a notion that’s even harder to deny upon a glance at the star-studded production credits. Not only did Van Dyke Parks arrange the orchestral backdrop to Newsom’s epic idylls as well as help her produce, but Steve Albini recorded the harp and vocal parts before Jim O’Rourke mixed the whole thing. Yet even this “holy trinity” supporting cast can only go so far – The Matrix can make a Top 40 pop star out of awkward canuck Avril Lavigne or horribly misdirected Liz Phair, but no one’s claiming their status as a transcendent chanteuses. Newsom has the brilliant gift of being able to tell stories even without exquisite production that transport the listener to another time and place. 2004’s Milk-Eyed Mender proved this without a doubt. So it’s easy to make the connection that amazing production on incredibly strong songwriting can create a record that is the antithesis of the “sophomore slump.”

Though only five tracks long, Ys runs 55 minutes, with no track under seven minutes long. Within three minutes of any song, however, you’ve been sucked into a world of suggestive poetry, fantastical imagery, and epic orchestration - a place that, in all honesty, is hard to leave. That’s what makes the album so addictive: it sounds so unlike anything else that 2006 has produced. Its uniqueness and beauty make all comparisons inadequate. Elements from imagined Renaissance operatic arias appear alongside excerpts that could be from some fantastical agrarian musical. Within this Romantic storytelling Newsom’s harp moves from percussive to angelic, creating a swath of sound that moves from moments of solitary spotlight to movements awash in strings or woodwinds.

"Emily Part II"

Throughout it all, Newsom’s playful yet profound harmonies provide a consistent guide through the fantasy. At the end of opener “Emily”, Newsom quips that “the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.” Much like her imagined meteor, there is no doubt Ys is a gift from the stars.

All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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