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Mind Out of Time

 

Joanna Newsom: Ys

Drag City, 2006

Rating: 4.4

 

Posted: November 15, 2006

By Peter Landwehr

Joanna Newsom is a surprising choice for a unifying force in indie-rock, yet it happens that she is. For starters, there's that divisive, half Lisa Simpson, half howling cat voice, as well as her being labeled as one of the founders of "freak folk," despite her protestations -- if there's one thing an indie-rocker can go for, it's a sound most people don't like and a movement nobody has heard of. Then there's the endorsement of her previous album The Milk-Eyed Mender by indie-folk legend Will Oldham, a similarly obscure figure and signifier of worthiness. And now, for her sophomore follow-up Ys, Newsom has enlisted the aid of Steve Albini, Van Dyke Parks and Jim O'Rourke, three luminaries who again sit just outside the spotlight despite their important histories. Any respectable hipster should realize that now is the time to unthinkingly jump on her bandwagon and trade their eye-teeth for concert tickets and the possibility of claiming that "they were there" for one of her shows.

Of course, a list of somewhat obscure, brilliant musicians as your collaborators is all well and good when paging through album liner notes or trying to impress people, but it provides scant information about how an album will actually sound; an appropriate comparison might be Paris Hilton, who crammed her album with big name producers -- if you overlooked her moniker and just saw that of Scott Storch, you would assume that Paris should inevitably be labeled a pop triumph and receive immense radio play. (Regrettably, at least one of these events has come to pass.) And if, with that much aid, an essentially talentless individual can put together something generically acceptable, then one has to wonder about the sound of the album that gets made when an even more sterling production team works with a musician with actual talent. The answer is that you get Ys, an album that doesn't really sound like anything.

Or rather, it doesn't sound like anything in the rock world. This is a standard claim, and one people made about The Milk-Eyed Mender, as well as for Arcade Fire’s Funeral, and Sufjan Stevens' Illinois, and TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain -- and right they were for all of them. And now some critic is saying the exact same thing about Ys. But the difference between Ys and those other works is that it actually isn't a pop album. There are vestiges of pop albums, as on the choruses on "Cosmia" and "Monkey and Bear," but the interplay between Newsom and Parks' multi-instrument arrangements is much less the orchestral pop of Sufjan Stevens than some new sub-genre that might be called pop orchestral, except that that invokes waltzes by Strauss. And he, Stevens and even Newsom herself (on The Milk-Eyed Mender) used a lot more hooks and bubblegum than are to be found here.

Mechanically, each track on the album consists of Newsom singing while playing her harp, with various instruments used as background and occasionally swooping in to take over the melody. One moment you barely notice the strings; suddenly they dominate the track, then vanish to be replaced by a combination of banjo and accordion. Each cut consists of these intersecting instances, small individual portions of several songs tied together. They could be labeled as movements, but flow together and shift rapidly enough that such distinct boundaries would provide the wrong idea. And while the one unaccompanied track on the album is excellent, without Parks' arrangements the whole would be infinitely less graceful; Ys is very much a product of perfect collaboration. The unifying force of the songs is Newsom's vocals; her voice has improved a bit -- credit to Albini's production -- and it's possible to hear traces of Bjork and Shara Worden buried within it.

The narrative plot of each song retains the best features of Newsom's previous work, and is gloriously wordy. Here might be the album's one weakness, since it's simply hard to understand a line like "Scrap of sassafras, eh Sisyphus?" when it's set to rhythm, to say nothing of back-and-forth dialogue. Yet despite the need for a lyrics sheet, the emotional impact is consistently unhindered, another victory to be chalked up for collaboration. Indeed, there hasn't yet been a song this year with the same complexity of character as "Monkey and Bear" that has also managed to work musically.

Ys isn't an album for everyone -- it's a slow grower rather than accessible sugar. And it certainly won't win fans in markets to which Newsom doesn't already appeal. If anything, her music is going to reach out to an older demographic than the valuable teenage segment. Hipsters will laugh with scorn as radio continues to ignore it. Some critics will label it over-ambitious, or claim that they "just don't get it." And yet, in the end, the love and the scorn and the theorizing about just how groundbreaking it is won't matter to Newsom or her conspirators. Why? Because what they've actually done is make something really, really solid, something completely unique, and they already know it.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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