Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Joanna Newsom and "Ys," 2006

Joanna Newsom has a sensibility like none other. She plays a folk-like harp style that is quite accomplished and musically rich and her voice is unmistakable. Her songs tend to be whimsical yet substantial, reaching the level of art song. Her (third?) album Ys (Drag City 303) is her collaboration with the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who co-produced the album with Joanna and provided characteristic orchestra accompaniment for four of the songs.

This is music she made before her voice changed (a medical condition made surgery necessary) and so it has that adolescent quality on this set. (I like her voice both before and after. Either way she projects originality from every pore.)

There's a timelessness to this music. It could have been written 200 years ago--though no doubt listeners would have thought it most peculiar back then. And on the other hand there is no self-concious nostalgia element going on. And at the same time, paradoxically, it's total modernity in its way it comes across. There is a very new and a very ancient vibe to her music. In a way you could think of it as the 21st century musical equivalent to William Morris' appropriation of the craft tradition into a new context in Victorian times.

At this point in the review it no doubt is customary to say, "either you like her or you don't." Well, that applies to anything. What it means is that the writer is not sure if his or her audience is going to dismiss this music, perhaps. Well, at some point people stopped saying that about Bob Dylan. Time also for Joanna Newsom.

"You should like it," I'll say instead. And if you don't, so be it. The artistry contained in her harp work, the quirky lyrics, the vocal style and the quality of the songs suggest that liking her is highly recommended. Ys is among her very best. With Van Dyke Park's arrangements it has much to recommend it. So maybe you'll like it. I think you will. I'm convinced, OK?

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