Joanna Newson – Ys
Drag City, 2007
Acquired: Love Garden, New, 2007
2007 was a pretty shitty year for music. I distinctly remember there were only five records that totally blew me away that year, and those records were fucking amazing. So, instead of having a bunch of really great records where were about five outstanding ones. Well, maybe four. Neko Case's record was kind of added on for the sake of having a top 5. It was merely really really great. This was number three or something, I think. “Epic” and “Ambitious” are thrown around a lot when talking about this record, and after you hear it you realize that those tags are completely true. This could have been a sophomore record of disastrous disappointment, given the sweetness of The Milk-Eyed Mender. Here, that “Quaint” tag I affixed to her previous record is completely gone. Gone gone gone. This is a juggernaut of a record, and one that rightly should find its way into the top 10 (or at least top 20) records of the decade. At it's heart, this is Joanna Newsom proving she's a magnificent songwriter with a knack for not only terrific vocal lines and gorgeous harp music (I don't know what else to describe it as, “harping,” maybe, but that sounds weird), but she's really stepped it up as a lyricist. It's still very weird and olde tymey, but there are lines here that cut straight to the center of me. There's relationship history with this record I don't want to get into, but I think about it every time I hear “Only Skin,” which is the best song on this record and my favorite. It's 17 minutes long. The part where Bill Callahan (whom Newsom was dating at the time) comes in towards the end gives me chills. The memories with this song are absolutely vivid, and it's weird listening to it now but it's still an amazing song, and really what defines this record. Frankly, it's one of the finest compositions I've ever heard. It's like classical music or something. Something so old about it yet something that no one has ever done before. Something that defines classic, you know? And lyrically, this is her masterpiece. It's like a master's thesis in poetry, or something. Poetry in the way “Desolation Row” is poetry. The way the words wrap around the vocal line. The consonance and assonance and alliteration, etc. Now, after the praise I will say that when I saw her play this record live with her makeshift orchestra I had a miserable time. Because it was at the Granada. Which is an awful place to see shows. This record is meant for a beautiful theater, or at the very least Liberty Hall. At the best, the Lied Center. Or somewhere with fucking SEATING because standing through this was pretty rough. That, and she only played these five songs, one from Milk-Eyed Mender and a new one and it was over. Bummer. She was just fine, but the elements made it a terrible show, if you know what I mean. Regardless, this is an excellent excellent record and it's one of those few records that I own that I NEED to own, because it just doesn't quit work as well on CD or MP3. It's FIVE songs spread over TWO discs. Three songs get their own side, which is rad. And the liner notes are as epic as the record. In the liner notes you can see the personnel, which is a veritable dream team. First: There's Van Dyke Parks who knows a thing or two about song cycles and pretty much helping to make landmark records (see Brian Wilson's/The Beach Boys' Smile), looming over this one in the absolute best way. He conducted the orchestra and I'm sure he helped with the songwriting and definitely did a lot of the orchestrations if not all of them and totally co-produced this record. Then you've got Steve motherfucking Albini engineering and Jim O'Rourke mixing. You really can't do better than that, especially if you want to impress the indie-rock elite. The LP is the total package, an ode to grandeur that is somehow totally human and relatable despite being so massively good.