#1

November 27, 2010

Joanna Newsom – Ys
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

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

November 25, 2010

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
singer/songwriter, folk
2004

The very first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard, which was way back in the good old days of 2005, was a rather unconventional five-minute ode to a pet dog by the name of “Sadie”. While it took a few listens before I got the hang of her vocal style (honestly, “Sadie” is probably one of the more challenging entry points to her oeuvre), the vivid lyricism, exquisite harp-playing and heartfelt, sentimental delivery took little time to reach me. Several years later “Sadie” remains my favourite song on Newsom’s debut, and when she gently coos “and all that we know is blowin’ like tumbleweed” and her voice trills up high on the work “blowin'” – that bit makes me swoon. The Milk-Eyed Mender is full of such spellbinding tracks, each of which is home to plenty of little fell-good moments such as the one mentioned above. There’s the sleepy beauty of tracks like “The Sprout and the Bean” (who doesn’t love the way she phrases “are y’interested?” to make it rhyme with “break some bread”?), “Cassiopeia” (I think that “and I swim sweetly as a herring through the ether not despairing” is one of the loveliest lyrics on the album), “Bridges and Balloons” (the word-structure behind “a thimble’s worth of milky moon can touch hearts larger than a thimble” is very special) and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” (“your skin is something that I stir into my tea” evokes some incredible imagery). These are balanced out by the small handful of more powerfully delivered cuts like “Inflammatory Writ” and “Three Little Babies”, a couple of no-frills, piano-led belters that see Newsom at her most fearlessly forthright, and “Peach, Plum, Pear”, with its almost overwhelming, “army of Newsoms” multi-tracked vocal. There’s a gentle, old-timey magic in her songs that sees her constantly being aligned with fairies, dragons and other fantasy tropes, but such Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Menderknee-jerk comparisons are ignorant and completely miss the earthy sincerity that’s present in every track (contrary to popular belief, many of these songs are about actual, real-life things), not to mention the sly humour to be found – would ye-olde hippy elf really sing “I killed my dinner … with karate“, as Newsom does in “The Book of Right On’s” disarming opening lines? Even if her songs present the lyrical knottiness and colourful metaphor of a creative writer – an aspect which is, as far as I’m concerned, utterly delightful – everything she sings still rings with honesty and life experience. Newsom really sprung out of nowhere with this release – it stands as an exquisite debut by an artist who truly is one of a kind.