Bilbo Baggins seeks revenge

The elfin singer/harp player Joanna Newsome returns with an ambitious new record

Haily Gostas

In the psych-folk class of 2004 that included popular kids like Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom seemed more likely to be voted “Sprightly Elfin Girl With Harp,” or “The Twee Fairy Child And Her Helium Voice” or maybe “Sorta Cute Hippy-Dippy In That Olde English Course” than anything else.

With the release of “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” Newsom’s full-length debut that same year, there was no disagreeing that she was one tough sell.

Newsom stumbled onto the scene with a harp twice her size in tow, a bizarre appreciation for Renaissance-Appalachian folk and a girlish, squeaky-piped chirp likened to everything from Björk and Billie Holiday to, less flatteringly so, the character of Lisa Simpson. Though something about her was undeniably hypnotic, she was still entirely strange, silly and hardly taken seriously – how could she be when her album’s primary topics of discussion were beans and balloons?

Newsom’s second album, “Ys” (pronounced ‘eees’), is the most well orchestrated (literally) means of revenge possible on all those that dared dismiss her as just another freaky folkie. It proves she can pack quite a powerful punch and, in doing so, actually manage to create an absolute masterpiece.

JOANNA NEWSOM
ALBUM: Ys
LABEL: Drag City

“Ys” may be a late entry in the race for best album of the year, but it definitely pushes itself to the front. In five songs and 55 minutes total, it is an almost unspeakably incredible record, not only for its arresting, abrasively epic music, but also the well-developed wit and charm of Newsom’s Raphaelite-like storytelling.

The album features a full orchestra, arranged by legendary Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks and recorded by veteran engineer Steve Albini at Abbey Road Studios. It swirls and swells around Newsom’s voice, which warbles back and forth from her familiar innocent twittering to surprisingly full-bodied emotional crooning. Strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, banjos, mandolins, guitars and accordions all stop by to back her and her faithful harp up, but the full house never once weighs down the light and lifting sound she has accomplished with newfound confidence.

In Newsom’s fairy tale world, monkeys fall in love with bears, skipping stones become falling meteorites and lovers await their lost ones for centuries. Yet “Ys” is not an album cut into cohesively separate songs: from the 12-minute opening opus “Emily” to “Only Skin,” which employs the bone-deep voice of Smog frontman (and Newsom squeeze) Bill Callahan and clocks in at nearly 20 minutes, to the gasping, gorgeous conclusion of “Cosmia” – each song meanders and flows into the next.

“Ys” is an album testing in its length and almost exhausting in its rabid ambition. However, it is an achievement that no other peers of Newsom’s, or perhaps anyone in all of modern music making, could have properly pulled off. “Ys” could have fizzled into mere grand folly, but Newsom proves she finally has the chops to steer her music into astonishingly grand territory.