November 27, 2010

Joanna Newsom – Ys
singer/songwriter, folk

What an amazing surprise is was to have Ys come along and make an album as accomplished as The Milk-Eyed Mender resemble a developmental step. There’s really no denying that in the two years between her first and second releases, Newsom grew as a Joanna Newsom - Ysmusician by leaps and bounds, and the result of her artistic growth was an album of newfound maturity offset by a familiar flair for creative whimsy. Newsom strengthened all of her minor weaknesses, sharpened her songwriting (it speaks volumes that this is an album of lengthy, vocally driven tracks, which never drags for a moment), and yet still maintained all of her rustic charm, including that marvellous (and divisive!) voice which, despite considerable refinement, has kept all of its precious squawks and lilting inflections firmly intact. Memorable moments pop up regularly throughout the album’s five tracks, as perfectly timed key-changes, subtle style-shifts, glorious crescendos and sentimental vocal turns – the “Why the long face?” interlude on “Sawdust and Diamonds”, the “Be a Woman” segment on “Only Skin” and everything from “Squint skywards and listen” onwards at the end of “Emily” being personal favourites – sweep the listener away time and again. Producer Jim O’Rourke, engineer Steve Albini and composer Van Dyke Parks make valuable behind-the-scenes contributions, and Bill Callahan provides some great backing vocals on “Only Skin”, but this is undeniably Newsom’s album. No matter how the songs are dressed up, they always come back to her exquisite vocals, tender harp playing and enticing storytelling. To me, one of the greatest reasons for Ys success is that its five tracks all have such distinct, individual identities. Even with the album tying together perfectly – and it truly does – it also feels like a series of self-contained “movements”, each with a character all of its own and, more importantly, a listener-response all of its own. The allegorical story-song “Monkey and Bear”,  which sees the titular characters break away from their oppressive confines only the have the former exploit the latter for personal gain, stands out for its juxtaposed midday-matinée strings and nursery-rhyme style; “Sawdust and Diamonds” is unique via its stripped back production – it being the only track sans-orchestra – contrasting it sharply against the lush and elaborate backings of the other tracks; “Cosima” is perhaps the albums most overtly “pretty” track, serving its role as a sleepy, lullaby of a closer, much as “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” did on the album’s predecessor; “Only Skin” is memorable for its huge runtime and multi-part structure, which incorporates several distinct passages of song which could all have been great individual tracks in their own right; and finally, there’s “Emily”, Ys‘ opening track, which stands apart simply for being one of the most completely beautiful songs I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think I can begin to sufficiently describe the effect this song has had on me, so I’ll just say this – there are very few songs in existence that have actually made me stop and wonder if I had discovered my new, singular favourite song of all time, and this is one of them. I’d pick it in a heartbeat as my number one song of the decade, just as I’m picking Ys as my number one album. Absolutely magical.



3 Responses to “#1”

  1. Helen Says:

    Great review, Tom. “Absolutely Magical” is so perfectly apt for this brilliant album. Ys certainly hold the place of my all time favourite album. The album certainly has had, and continues to have, a profound effect of me. The narrative Newsom weaves in these songs is spectacular. They are so rich, and full of those amazing lyrical moments and imagery.

    ‘Only Skin’ is my favourite track on this album. I love every line from “And there was a booming above you, that night black aeroplanes flew over to sea” to “and if the love of a woman or two dear, could move you to such heights, then all I can do is do, my darling right by you.” I also really like the middle of this song about the brown bird “Then in my hot hand, she slumped her sick weight…” In fact, I could wax lyrical, and quote many favourite lines from this song. Like Emily is for you, Only Skin made me stop and think, and ultimately decide, that the beauty of this song, has made given it the place of my favourite song.

    Every song on this album has become favoured, and one I’ve listened to on repeat at some point. They really all are truly fantastic tracks. At the moment I’m listening to ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’ a lot. I do really like the stripped back nature and the “I wanted to say, why the long face?” and “I could not undo that desire” passages.

    I’m glad we share this immense appreciation for this truly sublime album. :)

  2. The Little Kahuna Says:

    I think you have a wonderful passion for the music you love, and it comes through in your writing.
    However, unless this is intended as your personal journal, or a suggested mix-tape for your vegan friends to play on New Year’s eve, I cannot imagine a list of 100 of the best albums containing names like Joanna Newsom, Deerhoof and Fiery Furnaces multiple times while leaving out ALL of the best-selling artists of the day. I understand the need for every hipster to circumvent commercialism, but when you become the ANTI-commercialist, ignoring quality purely to spite its mass appeal, then you become the ironic object of your own scorn.

    Please forgive me if my expressive nature appears snarky, but I have seen and done much over the last 20 yrs in music, and I simply hate to see critics diss good music on the basis of success. I am a fan of many of these artists, and love that you included the Roots and Erykah Badu as much as Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Neko case, but I submit that if either of the former two had been as successful with those albums as some of their priors, you would have (based on the evidence before me) omitted them from the list.
    And while this is subjective and there are probably dozens of patchouli-smelling, birkenstock-wearing, intellectual and artistic elitists who will run to your side on this, some of us are actually more qualified than others. I have met and seen Deerhoof live. I have listened to that album as well as their previous, and as kooky and creative as the novelty may be, their “genius” is hugely overstated. Especially when your list does not mention Adele or Arcade Fire (and those are just 2 if I were starting alphabetically).

    So I know these are just your faves, but if you expect anyone to read something this long, you may want to broaden your horizons a touch.

    Well-written though. Keep up the good work!

    • halibut3some Says:

      This is obviously my personal favourite 100 albums. It isn’t intended to be an objectively correct list.

      I’ve also seen Deerhoof live, and heard pretty much everything they’ve done. The Runners Four is one of my favourite albums, so it goes in the list.

      I listen to anything that catches my interest across a pretty broad spectrum. If I like it, I’ll say so. I enjoy The Arcade Fire (The Suburbs not so much, felt bloated and inconsistent) but can honestly say that I don’t enjoy their albums enough to rate them in the list above anything that’s already there. My only experience with Adele is her singles, and they haven’t appealed – they’re not bad, just not my thing. I dismiss nothing based on success, only based on me not enjoying it. If this list says much more to you about me than “this guy really likes these albums”, then you’re making too many assumptions. Should I lie to myself and include a bunch of albums I don’t like as much, to bring my list closer in line with the general concensus?

      Vegan friends? Birkenstock-wearing? How odd. It’s just a list of what I dig. Don’t let it get to you.

      Anyway, thanks for compliments on my writing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s