The word "lavish" has been hanging around patiently in dictionaries and thesauri for years, just waiting to apply itself to the new Joanna Newsom CD. The eccentric harpist/poetess/songbird has seen fit to follow up her rough-hewn, craftswoman-like debut The Milk-Eyed Mender (appropriately dressed down in hand-stitched cover art) with a huge, dazzlingly orchestrated and, yes, lavish set of extended suites (replete with an "old Flemish master"-style cover portrait of the artiste).
Ys contains only five tracks but nonetheless clocks in at just under an hour. Each song moves at a leisurely pace, but the effect comes off as less opulent-for-opulence's-sake than as a rare demonstration of taking the time to stop and smell the musical flora. And what a garden of aural delights has been concocted! Newsom's exquisite harp and defiantly individualistic vocals were recorded with no-frills, you-are-there clarity by indie-rock stalwart Steve Albini, and those basic tracks were then set to orchestrations by legendary arranger (and one-time Beach Boys lyricist) Van Dyke Parks. These two sessions were then seamlessly mixed together by avant-gardist-turned-studio-wiz Jim O'Rourke (Wilco, Sonic Youth). The results of all this loving toil are both weirdly familiar and unlike anything you've likely been privileged to hear before.
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The first piece, "Emily" (named for and featuring backing vocals by Newsom's sister), is haunting and vivid, describing an idyllic but frightening dream with such conviction and detail that it seems to unfold before the listener in real time, with lyrics like "so the muddy mouths of baboons and sows, and the grouse and the horse and the hen / grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen" which, believe it or not, read much freakier than they sound tripping from the singer's tongue. The following track, "Monkey & Bear," continues the animal motif and begins with multitracked Newsom vocals sounding like nothing so much as sugar-plum fairies (or Lullaby League members) come to life. Each song contains a certain spooky, homespun mysticism ("I wasn't born from a whistle, or milked from a thistle at twilight / No; I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright" from "Sawdust & Diamonds") as well as a sly, word-drunk wit ("Scrape your knee: it is only skin / Makes the sound of violins" from "Only Skin"). With Ys, Joanna Newsom and her collaborators have constructed a self-contained omniverse of sound, one that threatens to close up behind the listener, taking you with it when the disc deigns to stop spinning. Not a bad way to go, really.