Friday, December 15, 2006

Have you heard Joanna Newsom's new album?

The name of the album is Ys, (1 point if you know the old French folk tale, 2 if you know the excellent Debussy prelude inspired by that tale), and I hesitate to recommend it, as Ms. Newson’s voice is an acquired taste. One I’m not sure I’ve even fully acquired yet. It’s odd, squeaky and strangled, flighty and warbled, like a record on an old turntable set somewhere between 33 and 45 rpms. The first time I heard her sing, on a track from an earlier album, I hated her voice, really, thinking it full of fakery and strained effect, but even then I was paying attention to her harp playing and her hypnotic and enticing melodies.

In any case, I felt I had to check out her new album after reading a considerable number of intriguing and positive reviews, notably Sasha Frere-Jones' from The New Yorker and the one from the sometimes-irritating site. There are only five tracks on the new album, all lengthy affairs full of the constant motion of her harping and her singing, and four tracks also have highly imaginative and unpredictable orchestral scoring by Van Dyke Parks. Her songs seem to consist of long sequences of her simple harmonic progressions, one after another, after another, endlessly strung with her voluminous and poetic lyrics. I say poetic, and I think I mean it. Each song reads like a long, imaginative work of poetry; whether it’s good poetry or bad poetry, I’m not really sure, but it seems to hold my attention, obliquely touching on themes of family and work, and art and music, myth and history, and who knows what else, replete with details from the natural world, minnows and bears and meteors…I like it.

And the orchestration is great, shimmering with ideas, buffeting the melodies and lyrics like the various waters and worlds surrounding a small boat passing downstream on its way to the ocean. (That analogy was a bit much, wasn't it?) Mr. Parks has worked on many other notable projects, including the finally-last-year-released SMILE album from Brian Wilson, a couple tracks with Sam Phillips (one of my favorite singer-songwriters of the 90’s), and some work of his own. I have an album of his called Song Cycle. I hated it when I first played it, and shelved it for three years, only pulling it out a couple weeks ago after hearing Ms. Newson’s new album. Now, well, I like it, but haven’t really fallen for its willful eccentricities yet.

Anyway, regarding Ys: it seems to have caught me. I’ve played it through a few times in just a couple of weeks, a rare event these days for me, especially for anything related to the popular music world. Maybe this is music far removed from that world, but I don’t think so. It’s less complicated music than the recent press would have you believe, less complex than you might think at first from its unique instrumentation and long, poetic structures. It is accessible and straightforward music, done with personality and imagination, and worth checking out.

My apologies if her voice makes your cat cry.

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