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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2006 03:53 pm

Stories of sadness and strength

Joanna Newsom’s sophomore effort shows off her narrative powers

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Joanna NewsomYsDrag City

The cover art for Joanna Newsom’s sophomore album, Ys (pronounced ees) depicts the folk chanteuse as a Renaissance peasant with a sickle in one hand and a portrait of a butterfly in the other. The juxtaposition of strength and fragility is a perfect visual metaphor for Newsom’s music, which manages to incorporate both cold grandeur and vulnerability. The Drag City artist’s well-received debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, marked by her intricate harp work and intimate, fanciful songwriting, made many indie rock critics’ best-of lists for 2004. With her new album, Newsom expands on those elements, incorporating lavish strings and complex extended metaphors into five opuses, each hovering at the 10-minute mark. She retains her status as a 21st-century fish out of water, a modern-day troubadour.

Aided by master composer Van Dyke Parks, co-writer of Brian Wilson’s Smile, and renowned engineer Steve Albini, Newsom has produced a conceptual record that will have little trouble standing time’s arduous test. Newsom’s songwriting strength takes center stage on Ys, on which Newsom becomes a storyteller, incorporating nature imagery and fantastical tales for a more multifaceted record than Mender.

Newsome’s lyrics exemplify both the spiritual and scientific and sometimes, as on the opening track, “Emily,” stitch the two together flawlessly. Ahead of a salvo of imposing strings, Newsom weaves a romantic tale of astronomy and dreams of a friend, setting a philosophical science lesson to verse: “The meteorite is just what causes the light/ and the meteors how it’s perceived/ and the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet and offering to thee.”

The album’s second track, “Monkey and Bear,” commences with a harmonizing trio of sopranos whose sound is reminiscent of old-time bluegrass warbling. Strings, flute, and harp acoustic guitar lead this spectacular tale, and Newsom echoes her debut’s childlike vocals. Newsom sheds the image of the capricious fairy she encompassed on her debut, though, becoming an enchanting Mother Nature figure, and she tosses out the cute, imperfect sound of Mender for a more mature, polished production. Lacking a conventional song structure, Newsom’s tracks ebb and flow along, often introducing new elements at off-kilter moments. On “Only Skin,” Newsom initiates a haunting duet at the 14-minute mark with (Smog)’s Bill Callahan, a Drag City labelmate, whose bass complements Newsom’s distinctive delicate tone. On “Sawdust & Diamonds,” Ys’ strongest track, it’s just Newsom and her quick-tempo harp line. Her imperfect vocals may turn off first-time listeners, but, like Tom Waits’ gravely growl, Newsom’s childlike voice is simply a vehicle for expression. Mistakenly characterized as weak or unsure, it tends to tremble and sometimes grows shrill, but this affectation serves only to illustrate her overwhelming emotion, helping communicate Newsom’s great stories of sadness and strength. The singer is hardly the naïve girl her quavering coo might imply.

Chicago’s Drag City Records released Ys on Nov. 14.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com

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