MICHELE NORRIS, host:
NPR listeners have voted for their favorite CDs of 2006. You can see the selections and hear the music at NPR.org. And perhaps the most unlikely artist on the list is a 24-year-old harp player named Joanna Newsom. Her CD is called “Ys.”
Our critic, Will Hermes, says it's not just her harp playing that's getting her noticed.
(Soundbite of song, “Monkey and Bear”)
Ms. JOANNA NEWSOM (Singer): (Singing) Down in the green hay where monkey and bear usually lay.
WILL HERMES: First things first. Joanna Newsom has a very strange singing voice, but this is understandable. When your instrument is the harp, you need to create some contrast so your music doesn't sound like the score to a made for TV movie about guardian angels. Newsom's voice can be off putting - it's half little girl, half crazy old lady. But give her time, and you may find yourself drawn into a remarkable world.
(Soundbite of song, “Sawdust and Diamonds”)
Ms. NEWSOM: (Singing) As I crash through the rafters and the ropes and the pulleys trail after, and the holiest belfry burns sky high. And then the slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision. While, somewhere, with your pliers and glue you make your first incision. And in the moment of almost unbearable vision, doubled over with the hunger of lions. Hold me close, cooed the dove, who was stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds.
HERMES: Joanna Newsom's new record is arranged and produced by three heavy duty guys: Van Dyke Parks, the man who helped Brian Wilson create “Pet Sounds,” Steve Albini, who produced Nirvana's “In Utero,” and Jemel Rourik, who helped Wilco create “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Newsom uses them to create music that's both dreamlike and raw, with orchestral arrangements that appear and disappear like fog.
(Soundbite of song, “Only Skin”)
Ms. NEWSOM: (Singing) Rowing along, among the reeds, among the rushes. I heard your song, before my heart had time to hush it! Smell of a stone fruit being cut and being opened. Smell of a low and of a lazy cinder smoking. And when the fire moves away.
HERMES: Joanna Newsom has what surely the most devoted following among the new school of progressive folkies. Fans who can make even an outdoor concert, like the one I saw this summer in Brooklyn, feel like a vigil or a séance. And what makes her new CD different than he paired down debut is not just Van Dyke Parks's orchestrations, but its lengthy compositions, each clocking in around 10 minutes long. The melody lines often unfurl so far you lose sight of them until Newsom artfully loops them back around.
(Soundbite of song, “Only Skin”)
Ms. NEWSOM: (Singing) While the river was twisting and braiding, the bait bobbed. And the string sobbed, as it cut through the hustling breeze. And I watched how the water was kneading so neatly. Gone treacle. Nearly slowed to a stop in this heat, frenzy coiling flesh along the muscles beneath.
HERMES: The title of Joanna Newsom's new record is spelled Y-S and pronounced “Ys,” and it refers to a mythical druid city built by King Gradlon once upon a time in Brittany for his daughter Dahut. Of course it does.
But while Newsom is clearly a student of mythology, the fleshy passion in her music is very here and now. Joanna Newsom uses her strangeness not so much to distance herself from the world, but help listeners recognize the strangeness that's right there in it.
NORRIS: Joanna Newsom's CD is called “Ys.” Our reviewer is Will Hermes.
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