Few albums have polarized the critics in 2006 as much as Joanna Newsom's ambitious new album Ys. Somewhere between Pitchfork's love letter and Rolling Stone's own heavy critique lies the truth of this astonishingly accomplished, if challenging, album. Detractors often lump the 24-year-old Newsom in with the "freak-folk" scene because, like that group's leading lights (Devendra Banhart, Vetiver, Cocoa Rosie, etc.), she uses acoustic instrumentation, has a quirky voice and writes impressionistic lyrics. The comparison is only partially apt: this five-song album, filled with complex orchestral arrangements (courtesy of the great Van Dyke Parks), 11-minute songs, and Newsom's epic poetry shows a maturity and musical sophistication that transcends pat classification.
Last night at New York's Webster Hall, a packed crowd stood rapt during Newsom's epic fugues and exploded with applause between songs. The spritely California native began the night straddling her massive harp and playing two of her most popular songs, "Bridges and Balloons" and "The Book of Right On" from her rapturous 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Both songs clock in at just under four-minutes and feature melodic refrains that present the Newsom novice with a beginners'-level introduction.
For songs from the more expansive Ys, Newsom brought out her multi-instrumental five-piece band — which variously included guitar, banjo, bouzouki, tambura, dulcimer and accordion — and proceeded to play the entirety of the new record in sequence. Songs like the 12-minute epic "Emily" or the 17-minute "Only Skin" backed with banjos and mandolin took on an almost bluegrass-y cast. Appropriately enough, Newsom's lovely-strange voice, which has often been compared to Bjork's, took on a timbre and twang more closely approximating Alison Krauss. It is a testament to the band's virtuosity that the acoustic sextet captured the essence of Ys ornate orchestrations with nary a bow, flautist, or sample in sight.
Newsom closed out her only encore with Milk-Eyed Mender's uptempo "Peach, Plum, Pear," an easily digestible four-minute round, and an appropriate reminder that at the essence of Newsom's grandiose songwriting lies an innate sense of melody, powerful song craft and stellar musicianship which, when added together quite often reaches the sublime.