Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A CD Review: Ys by Joanna Newsom

This is a fantastic album. The lyrics are the best I've heard since Don Van Vliet. I make the comparison seriously--the rhyme schemes, the way that the word meaning and the word sound support each other, and the choice of words and phrases from localized folk technologies.

"so, with the courage of a clown,
or a curor a kite,
jerking tight at its tetherin her dun-brown gown of fur
and her jerkin' of swansdown and leather"

Newsom studied harp, compostion and Englsh at Mills College in Oakland, and lived next to the gentle minimalist Terry Riley. She says that when she started her own composing she worked more in a folk tradition than a strictly classical one, and you hear this in her recordings--made of small, modular verses that vary and develop from one to another. The longer song structure reminds me of another older song writer: Robin Williamson from the Incredble String Band. Small songs linked one to the other, without a need for a standard A-A-B-A development.

Against her harp finger picking and chording, and her quirky and expressive voice, there is an intricate orchestration by Van Dyke Parks...Newsom says that they worked on it over a year, and that it took that long is easy to believe. It is astounding to me the amount of orchestral variety Parks uses throughout Ys, it is a course in orchestration techniques, all kick and side lighting providing shape and chiaroscuro to Newsom's vocal key. Never muddying, he syncopates and counterpoints, while extending the simpler folk chords into expressive vertical harmonic cliffs...just incredible.