Release Date: Nov 14, 2006
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Folk
There is no getting around the fact that Joanna Newsom is an enormously hard sell. Even in a climate in which a major label has given a contract to the Horrors - a band, lest we forget, who appear to have based their sound and their image almost entirely on that of the Savages, the dimly-remembered 1960s rock band fronted by erstwhile Monster Raving Loony Party leader Screaming Lord Sutch - it's hard to imagine Newsom getting further than most record company's receptions. Here is a 24-year-old Californian singing harpist, who wears her hair in braids, seems to have a thing about depicting herself as a medieval wench on her record sleeves and recently claimed her big influence was bassoon-heavy communist prog rock band Henry Cow, famed for decorating their album covers with paintings of socks.
Along with the beautifully filigreed arrangements and melodies, which mingle strings, jew's-harps, and spaghetti Western horns with Appalachian, Celtic, and even Asian influences, the album shows Newsom's development as a singer. She has more nuance and control, particularly over the keening edge of her voice, which is recorded so clearly that when it cracks, it tears the air like a tangible exclamation point. Ys' daring, plentiful wordplay makes it even more of a rarity: an extremely musically accomplished album with lyrics to match.
Ys is one of those rare sophomore albums that shatters exceedingly high expectations. Joanna Newsom’s debut cemented her reputation as one of the two or three archetypal performers in the loosely defined genre that has unfortunately come to be called “freak folk.” Rumor has it that The Milk-Eyed Mender has become Drag City’s best-selling album ever, so it’s no surprise that the label pulled out all the stops for this follow-up. Steve Albini recorded the harp and vocal tracks, with orchestration arranged and conducted after the fact by Van Dyke Parks.