Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ys Is The Best

Words can barely describe my love for Joanna Newsom's Ys. I first heard it coming from a former roommate's bedroom. I don't know why he had it—it's not really his type of music. At first I thought it was musical theater, which is even less his thing, and I was intrigued. I don't think he listened to it again, but I got a copy from him and put it aside for a couple of months. Then I noticed that a good friend of mine had a copy of the record sleeve framed in his house. He told me it was one of his favorite albums. Finally, after a couple more weeks, I plugged in my headphones. It blew my freaking mind. I listened to it repeatedly for the next several months.

In general, I dislike the harp. Why then, you may wonder, is my favorite musician a harp player? It's really the way she plays. First of all, and really most importantly, she completely avoids glissandos. The harp glissando is one of the worst things that ever happened to music, and it makes me want to break down in tears whenever I hear it in an otherwise brilliant piece. Second, she plays incredible contrapuntal accompaniment patterns and picks out melodies that most classical harpists fail to accentuate every time. She's an absolute virtuoso. (On the other hand, I don't really know anything about the intricacies of the harp. It's possible that everything I just wrote is nonsense. But the fact remains: I generally find harp to be a "blah" instrument, but in Ms. Newsom's hands it is angelic.)

Much has been written about Ms. Newsom's voice and most of it is ridiculous. It seems like everyone has jumped on the "fairy" or "childlike" bandwagons, which is really just a simplistic way of trying to place a label on something that one needs to hear in order to truly grasp. Labels often pigeonhole musicians into specific classifications, which I believe does a major disservice to seekers of greatness. If someone had said to me, "You should check out Joanna Newsom! She's a really great harpist and her voice is crazy. It's very childlike," then I may have never bothered to listen. Even the categorization of which instrument she plays may have deterred me; never mind that she plays it like no other harpist I've ever heard. So I think those people that say she sings "fairy music" damage others' abilities to go in with an open mind. I understand that placing labels is unavoidable, and the first person to say that she is reminiscent of a fairy probably really heard it that way. But now every critic that has heard that description perpetuates it, and it takes away from what she really has: a truly unusual—unique, even—voice that is unlike anything that I've ever heard.

The subtleties of the orchestration on the album are incredible. Van Dyke Parks should earn just as much praise as Ms. Newsom for the brilliance of this record. From the opening pizzicato accents to the closing arco chords, the strings are the perfect complement to the relatively sparse texture of harp and voice. One of my favorite moments is during "Emily." The music is growing, and Ms. Newsom is singing, "The whole word stopped to hear you hollering." She places an emphasis on the word "stopped" and, right on cue, the strings rest. As soon as she continues with her line, they continue with their own. This reinforcement and musical commentary of the text continues throughout the album. There are surprises, too: just when you think that "Emily" is going to be limited to lush string accompaniments, Mr. Parks brilliantly includes a mouth harp and banjo. In "Monkey and Bear," winds are added—bassoons, flutes, French horns, and muted trumpets can all be heard. There's even a great moment where an electric guitar arpeggio can be heard, seemingly out of nowhere.

My one minor, minor complaint is the lack of orchestration in "Sawdust and Diamonds." It's a brilliant song, and to some extent a needed rest from the dense texture of the orchestrated content, but what truly places this album so close to my heart is the texture. Perhaps a full orchestra wasn't needed, and it's certainly a fine song without, but some added instruments would have made it absolutely celestial. Nevertheless, it's hard to argue with perfection. The weakest track on this album would easily be the best song on many others, so any negative criticism I might offer hardly applies. As it stands, Ys is easily my favorite album of all time. To anybody who is looking for something different from the standard pop songs that plague the airwaves, this is a great place to look.

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