Joanna Newsom: Ys

And we all fall down slack-jawed to marvel at Joanna Newsom.

Joanna Newsom


Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2006-11-14
UK Release Date: 2006-11-06

One should never, and I mean never, use the word “poet” lightly -- not with creative writing majors, not with Rod McKuen, and certainly not with popular music artists. But I feel confident after immersing myself in Joanna Newsom’s much-anticipated Ys, that Ms. Newsom is indeed a poet, particularly because she meets one criteria of poet-dom better than just about anyone writing lyrics today. To write poetry does not require a supernatural, deeper-than-thou ability to experience emotion. It requires, among other things, a love for language for its own sake, not just as a means for expressing one’s feelings. Real poets care about words, and on Ys, Joanna Newsom pays true homage to their shapes, sounds, and power to elicit emotion, not just describe it. Ys the album is as epic as the legend of Ys, the mythical city of ancient Brittany. Five songs sprawl for a total of 55 minutes, demanding much of today’s set-it-and-forget-it listening audience, but rewarding it oh so greatly.

Although the shortest song on Ys, “Cosmia”, is over seven minutes long, the album is surprisingly brisk. Newsom’s compositions are full of such varied textures and moods that the danger is not that they will lose your attention, but that they will demand it. In fact, it is difficult for me to write this review and listen to Ys at the same time because my focus is pulled inexorably towards the songs, even after a month of nearly unbroken listening. Much of this has to do with the way the album was recorded. Newsom recorded her voice and harp in Chicago with Steve Albini. The tapes were then sent to the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who assembled an orchestra of strings and horns, as well as mandolin, banjo, electric guitar, accordion, even a horse skull, to color inside and outside the lines of Newsom’s songs. But rather than go back and re-record Newsom’s parts once the orchestration was laid down, the choice was made to keep those takes for their inherent intimacy and improvisatory nature. Thus the album’s recording features the best of two worlds, both the natural vulnerability of the solo performer and the dynamic and full production provided by Parks.

The songs themselves are stunning, timeless, triumphs of wonder and imagination. “Emily” draws much of its initial power from a somber, repeated melody offset by the rich textures of Newsom’s playful internal- and slant-rhymes.

There is a rusty light on the pines tonight; sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow,

Down into the bones of the birches, and the spires of the churches, jutting out from the shadows;

The yoke, and the axe, and the old smokestacks, and the bale, and the barrow --

And everything sloped, like it was dragged from a rope, in the mouth of the south below.

Orchestral strings flit and dance around Newsom’s harp and voice like helpful sprites, melting away the long minutes, closely accompanying the narrative a la Peter and the Wolf. The essence of “Emily” is a tribute to sisterhood (Newsom’s sister Emily sings backup vocals on the track), expressed through the geographical language of both heaven and earth, “We’ve seen those mountains kneeling, felten and grey,” “You taught me the names of the stars overhead…/ Though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades, loosed in December.” Within the context of its story, the song even features an educational rhyme for remembering the difference between meteors, meteorites, and meteoroids. Skeptics might wonder what’s the use of lines like “Peonies nod in the breeze / And as they wetly bow with hydrocephalitic listlessness / Ants mop up their brow,” but there is definite purpose beyond novelty (and why shouldn’t one’s lyrics be novel?). Newsom positions her relationship with Emily in the grandest scheme possible: eternity. Between terrestrial life (“Butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours) and the machinery of the universe (“Pa pointed out to me, the way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light”), all things are impermanent, and love and life all the more precious.

We could stand for a century, staring, with our heads cocked,

In the broad daylight, at this thing:

Joy, landlocked in bodies that don’t keep --

Dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,

Till we don’t be.

If we can make room for ten thousand “Eat, drink, and be merry” songs, we should be able to make room for this longer, more thoughtful exposition.

“Sawdust & Diamonds” explores the concepts of desire, creativity, death, and love, with similar intensity. The only track on Ys not to feature orchestral accompaniment, the song is the album’s stark and beautiful fulcrum. It begins with a question, possibly to God, “From the top of the flight of the wide, white stairs / Through the rest of my life / Do you wait for me there?” Regardless, Newsom once again finds herself caught between love of life’s details and the inevitability of death. At once, she is so enamored with life she is about to burst, describing her own musical performance:

There’s a light in the wings, hits the system of strings

From the side, where they swing --

See the wires, the wires, the wires.

And the articulation in our elbows and knees

Makes us buckle;

We couple in endless increase

As the audience admires.

Moments later, she is nearly paralyzed by dread:

And the moment I slept, I was swept up in a terrible tremor.

Though no longer bereft, how I shook! And I couldn’t remember.

Then the furthermost shake drove a murthering stake in,

And cleft me right down through my center.

But ultimately her choice is against depression, to embrace the fleeting pleasures of existence, and to convince others to do the same, “And though our bones they may break, and our souls separate -- why the long face?/ And though our bodies recoil from the grip of the soil -- why the long face?” The song, clear-eyed and direct, provides an emotional journey and exploration unlike any other in popular music -- because both its musical and verbal language allow listeners to make discoveries for themselves, to mine new readings and surprises with each listen. Likewise with the Aesopian narrative “Monkey & Bear”, the forlorn “Cosmia”, and the grand “Only Skin”, all of which I’m savoring the slow unraveling.

So, particularly with regards to its rating, is Ys an album for which I can guarantee enjoyment? No more than any other. Obviously, Newsom’s voice has already been allotted classic “acquired taste” status. Vibrant, wild, and willful, prone to soaring and squeaking, it has drawn comparisons to old women, little girls, Bjork, Ethel Merman, even Olive Oyl, and been described as bizarre and exotic. But Newsom’s voice, at least to me, has more in common with the likes of Texas Gladden and Maggie Hammons, who used their instruments simply as vehicles for storytelling. For my money, Newsom has demonstrated more nuance, depth of feeling, and originality than a hundred bedazzling pop divas. Here’s why: right now, there is no one who could perform the songs on Ys as well as their author, regardless of vocal range, tone, or years spent under the tutelage of the most sought-after trainers. These are her stories, and as she recently expressed in an interview, they were not written with even the hopes that anyone would listen to them, let alone enjoy them. They were written because they had to be. The result, I believe, is a singular work of art whose power will only grow over time.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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