November 29, 2006
Joanna Newsom, Ys.
We admit Joanna Newsom is an acquired taste. At first, her child-like voice and dense theatrical lyrics can come off as a bit irksome.
Yet once you acquire the taste for Newsom's brand of quirky folk music, her songs will play over and over in your head, though in a good way. Her latest offering, Ys (pronounced "eees"), which was released on November 6, proves that Newsom's idiosyncratic music is not merely a novelty act. The album, comprised of a handful of 10 minute songs, showcases Newsom's genuine talent for melody and song writing.
On Ys, Newsom has toned down her vocal delivery. Her preceding album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was centered on her wailing, shaking and kindergartner-like vocals. Those vocals have been traded in for richer lyrics, replete with dense imagery and allegory, and a more eclectic sound. At its core Newsom's sound is modern folk, but with hints of indie-pop and country, and this album has further expanded her exploration of styles.
A highly trained ear will be able to discern the sounds of the brass, banjo, mandolin, accordion, and perhaps the horse skull, which is bizarrely used as a percussion instrument, on the album. The crown jewel of Ys, though, is the orchestration and arrangement by Van Dyke Parks. Parks has worked with a wide array of artists, including Fiona Apple and U2, but he is best known for his work with Brian Wilson on Wilson's masterpiece Smile. The first track on Ys, entitled "Emily," is the best example of Parks' subtle orchestration. The song is a mellow tug of war between Newsom's heartbreaking voice and the sparse, yet powerful, orchestra.
Once you get past the length of each song and Newsom's harp, Ys will entrance you into a state of pure satisfaction. Her songs are slow. Her language is florid (she uses the word "thee" from time to time). But the sensibility of genuine emotion is always crystal clear in her music, and will compel you to keep listening.
Loudon Wainwright III was at The Stephen Talkhouse, last Friday at 8 p.m.
When your biggest hit was "Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road)," it is inherent that you are an artist with a sense of humor. So is the case with Loudon Wainwright III, an artist who has been performing for over 30 years, has two Grammy nominations, and some famous progeny. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his music, you might recognize Wainwright from his theatrical roles in The Aviator and The 40 Year-Old Virgin or by virtue of his famous younger son, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Apart from his acting, and his son, Wainwright is an extremely accomplished folk musician.
In the 70s he was dubbed a disciple of Dylan, though his lyrics have always been a bit wittier and more self-deprecating than Dylan's. Wainwright has recorded with John Hiatt, and Johnny Cash covered Wainwright's song "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" on his album American Recordings.