I downloaded Joanna Newsom’s new EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band a couple of days ago from eMusic, and I finally sat down last night to listen to it.
And it’s a freaking revelation. All you Joanna Newsom-haters who want to know why I love her so much must – nay, MUST – hear this version of “Cosmia”. All the songs on the EP are live arrangements, but they’ve brought some serious intensity here.
First of all, she’s obviously taken some sort of voice lessons, because all the little-girl tone is gone, and she’s somehow taken her voice, which I always thought interesting and sweet, and brought a level of passion and power to her singing that just blows me away. I say this as a person who rarely gets excited about the human voice.
Then, there’s the arrangements. Let me say briefly why I liked Ys. so much: where some Joanna-haters just heard self-indulgence, I heard an attempt to recast American folk music as a much older artform. To explain, consider that The Band was a reflection of American folk and country by a mostly Canadian rock band that took elements of this artform and combined them with a sort of art-rock lens to make music that was completely new but sounded centuries old. Now, over in England, the Fairport Convention, inspired by The Band, decided to do the same with British folk music, only they had, y’know, almost a millenium of music tradition to draw upon. Liege and Lief, their answer to The Band, also blended the old and new in a completely original way, recasting the past as a vital component of folk music moving forward. With this in mind, I think Joanna Newsom’s Ys. is a similar work to Susanna Clarke’s book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke took the literary trappings of Dickens and Trollope, and recast British history as one of fantasy with near-realistic (at least in terms of Victorian literature) terms. Ys. is to American folk music what Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is to British literature and Liege and Lief is to British folk music, an attempt to recast American history as if it had 1,000 years and a folkway of fantasy to draw upon.
Now, Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band takes one of the songs from Ys., “Cosmia”, and re-arranges it to play up the Appalachian sound. The result is just flat-out gripping, and I barely breathed through its 13 minutes. It starts similar to the album version, just quiet voice and harp, but the other musicians, at first building on Van Dyke Parks’ album arrangements before abandoning them, slowly add intensity until by the final chorus, Newsom is almost hollering, a drum is pounding, and the musicians sound like they are about to break their instruments. As I lay in bed last night, listening to this, breathless, I felt like I was discovering her music all over again, with all due excitement.