Monday, November 27, 2006

Music Review: Joanna Newsom, "Ys"

Let me begin by saying that if a voice with charmingly child-like sounds whose lengthy songs include references to spelunking, Sissyphus, and unicorns, (as well as more traditional items such as love and death) all placed over a harp with the occasional violins and cellos is not your idea of good or interesting music, stop reading now.

Intrigued? Then Joanna Newsom's sophomore effort, "Ys," is right up your alley. Newsom's album is simultaneously one of the simplest and most complex albums in recent years. Instrumentally, it revolves around Newsom's voice and her harp-playing, with the harp often providing the only music to her story-like, lengthy songs. Thus, harp and voice are relatively simple in terms of setup, but as anybody who has heard someone (of any skill) play the harp, it's a complex instrument, always improvising and shifting time-signatures, melodies and harmonies, etc. Additionally, on some tracks, particularly the outstanding "Only Skin," violins, cellos, and violas enter, providing powerful counter-harmonies and counter-melodies to Newsom's harp. Again, while that sounds simple, given the complex and winding nature that harp music can (and, in this case, does) assume, none of the five songs is repetitive, either of itself or of the other songs.

As to the lyrics, they don't always make sense, having a bit of folk-by-way-of-European-folktale sense to them. If you're looking for a deeper meaning to life or political criticisms here, you won't find them. However, given the lyrics's winding nature (similar to the harp), they are irresistible to follow and hard to ignore. This is augmented by Newsom's voice, which can't be fairly described - it is something one must hear.

The album only has five tracks, and while they themselves are long (ranging from 7 to 16 minutes) the album's 49 minutes go by quickly. It isn't one of those albums that will necessarily make sense right away (my personal impression after the first lesson was an intrigued-but-uncertain, "huh...."), but if you are interested in seeing some true alternatives in the music world, and (as mentioned above) are not intimidated by harps and an otherworldly voice, then check out "Ys," and you'll find that Newsom has produced one of the most innovative and intriguing albums of the year.

5.5 (out of 6) square glasses