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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joanna Newsom, "Ys"

Joanna Newsom
Drag City (2006)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Joanna Newsom is the anti-single. Folk artists, indie artists, alternative artists; They can be as counter-mainstream as they want, but they all make singles. Look at MGMT and Foster the People. As alternative as rock can get, but still producing two of the biggest singles in recent years. Every aspect of Newsom's music goes against what makes a good single, but it works for her, and somehow she's still a critical darling. Her second album exemplifies three tendencies in her music that will never get her radio play.

One, her songs are nearly all epics. The five tracks on "Ys" total 56 minutes of listening, ranging from seven to 17 minutes in length. When drafting songs for an album such as this, the length serves as an end to the means. For one thing, Newsom recruited '60s alt-pop icon Van Dyke Parks to draft scores for a 29-piece orchestra. Scores for 29-piece orchestras are rarely between three to four minutes in length. The length of the tracks, and hence the length of the orchestral arrangements, are all servants to Newsom's original lyrical style however.

Newsom cannot write a hook. This might be an exaggeration, but only slightly. There are semblances of hooks in the opening two tracks, "Emily" and "Monkey & Bear," but by hook I mean a repeated stanza. And those stanzas are only repeated once. And for the former, the repeated stanza is 62 words. The longest track on the album, "Only Skin," features 1277 words, according to Microsoft Word. Newsom is verbose, and I mean that in the best of ways. Her mind is a dictionary and her diction makes it seem that she is weaving the epic tales off the top of her head, although the clever rhyme patterns suggest otherwise. 1200 words without a hook or an instrumental pause forces the listener to stick with the story, as if her phenomenal word choice doesn't.

Despite her amazing wordplay, many are turned off by Newsom's voice (which brings us to why-she-can't-make-a-single-number-three: delivery). Newsom describes her voice as "untrainable," or at least she makes it out to seem so. Despite hints of a nice soprano in "Only Skin," most of her vocals are delivered in a childlike warble. Newsom hates the description of "childlike" for her voice, but it's a sad-but-true issue. Newsom's famed instrument of choice, the harp, is also not a platinum-selling gig, but Newsom sticks with what she knows. The orchestra partially drowns out her playing on the first two tracks, but "Sawdust and Diamonds" allows her to show both her songwriting and virtuosic instrumental ability.

"Ys" is as challenging a listen as you'll find in this blog. The complex and involving tales that Newsom weaves require utmost attention from the listener. If you thought that the harp was an instrument for relaxing music, here's a wake-up call.

INTERESTING FACT: She's a indie-darling who is also a virtuoso on a classical instrument. She must date Juan Diego Flórez or something right? Actually, she currently dates Saturday Night Live actor and Lonely Island frontman Andy Samberg.

Sawdust & Diamonds by Joanna Newsom on Grooveshark

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