album reviews

Joanna Newsom
Drag City (2006)

Those who were captivated by the innocence of Joanna Newsom's 2004 debut, "The Milk-Eyed Mender," might be surprised by the direction she has taken on its follow-up, "Ys." Where "Mender" showcased her simple, delicate harp melodies and childlike voice, "Ys" is a more epic affair. The shortest of its five tracks stretches longer than any song on "Mender," and her compositions are enhanced by the orchestral arrangements of Van Dyke Parks (Brian Wilson's "Smile").

But beneath the sonic differences, "Ys" shares much with Newsom's earlier work, most notably the hypnotizing ebb and flow of her vocals. On "Emily," her bubbly memory of watching constellations fades into a charmingly sincere definition of meteors, meteoroids and meteorites. Most strikingly, amid the fantastical world she explores, she intersperses devastatingly direct lines, as she sighs at a near crawl, "Help me find my way back in / And there are worries where I've been."

Unfortunately, that sense of worry overshadows the album, as Newsom's constant barrage of lyrics and instrumentation doesn't often give her compositions much breathing room. "Ys" is most successful at its simplest moments: The stunning flutters of her harp on "Sawdust & Diamonds" complement her plaintive vocals without the distraction of other instruments. The album's briefest composition, the seven-minute "Cosmia," mostly avoids her fantasy visions, making her personal lyrics ("I'll sleep through the rest of my days / If you've gone away again") all the more powerful and direct.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 17 November 2006, Page WE06
.: Ys on