Published February 2007
Joanna Newsom - Ys (Drag City)
Joanna Newsom is a lady with a strange voice who plays a harp, and Ys is an album of only five songs, the shortest of which is seven minutes long, and the longest nearly seventeen. None of the songs have choruses, or verses. Wait, come back…
Recorded by legendary Nirvana producer Steve Albini and mixed by American underground cult hero Jim O'Rourke, Newsom's follow up to 2004's superb debut The Milk-Eyed Mender is something of a revelation. An ambitious project, each of the five songs here are simply fantastic torrents of words, intensely personal and deliberately intimate songs of high drama and intrigue, whose true meanings are undoubtedly cloaked in metaphor and allegory.
The album cover is a painting of Newsom, in the style of the Pre-Raphaelites, holding a sickle and a cosmia moth. The title also has biblical connections, Ys (pronounced 'Ees') was the name of a mythical city, which was flooded, as punishment for the decadence of its inhabitants. All of this, along with the twenty-six-piece backing orchestra, headed by Van Dyke Parks (a personal hero of Newsom's since her days studying classical composition at college), stinks of horrible self-indulgence, of course. With her biblical references and obscure symbolism, this visionary could come across as nothing more than another prog rock poser, who should have got left behind with the rest of the 1970s. However, as the fifty six minutes of this record progress, all doubt seems to fade. A true baroque pop masterpiece, Ys sounds beautiful.
These are tales of the fantastic and sinister, that wouldn't sound entirely out of place soundtracking a good old fashioned Disney animation, and Newsom's choice of words - "sassafras", "meteoroid", "hydrocephalitic" - is a real treat to the ears. Newsom, like a medieval Bjork, has found success with her hallucinatory vision of orchestral music. Finger pluckin' good.
The Long Blondes - Someone To Drive You Home (Rough Trade)
It seems that all of the British guitar bands that tasted success in the early 1990s have been reincarnated in the current crop of Radio 1 friendly indie bands. Kaiser Chiefs fill the irritating-music-for-quintessential-English-twerps gap left by Blur. Oasis' influence is lyrically evident in the working class sincerity of Arctic Monkeys (as well as spiritually evident in the arrogant numbskulls in Kasabian). Even the heights of musical mediocrity scored by the likes of Cast and Shed Seven are being celebrated, by buskers-in-disguise, The Kooks. Arguably, the best band from the Britpop era, in terms of both songs and style, were Pulp. And it is in fellow Sheffieldians The Long Blondes and their own brand of shabby chic, that Pulp are having the ultimate homage paid to them.
Like Jarvis Cocker, The Long Blondes understand there is more to life than shagging and getting pissed, and as a result they have songs about 1930s film stars ('Lust In The Movies') and roads ('Separated By Motorways'). That being said, there is a fair amount of drama too, with frontwoman Kate Jackson casting herself as both mistreated housewife ('Weekend Without Make Up') and agony aunt ('Once And Never Again'). With her sex appeal obvious from the very start, it would appear that Jackson is a lot cooler than Jarvis Cocker ever was - no thick rimmed spectacles here. But again there are similarities; she's the sort of girl who can make a £2000 dress look like she just picked it up from the Cat's Protection League shop round the corner for 50p. It's the same sort of skill that allowed a twenty-something Cocker to dress and act like a pensioner and still seem perfectly cool.
Musically, it's all angular guitars and prominent bass lines, reflecting both post-punk and new wave influences. Jackson herself has clearly been listening to a few Slits records, as far as her vocal style is concerned. Ultimately, this record aims higher, for lively minds, much like Pulp always did; and they may have indeed got the seal of approval - the album is indeed produced by Pulp bassist Steve Mackey. It's like Britpop never happened.
Sonic Youth - The Destroyed Room: B-Sides & Rarities (Geffen)
New York artrockers Sonic Youth have been dividing music fans for over twenty years now. Many believe the band are multi-talented and innovative purveyors of the artform, constantly breaking new ground and taking music to the cutting edge, while others believe they are a bunch of pretentious, self-indulgent no-talents who can barely even sing or play their instruments properly.
This self-explanatory compilation serves as evidence in both cases. However, unlike most odds-and-sods collections, this bypasses any pretence of completism in the interest of crafting a cohesive album from somewhat disparate source material, as well as making sure that enough strong material is available for future reissues of their back catalogue. Aside from a few tracks dating back to the mid '90s, the record is focused mainly on selections from the last six years, kicking off with the cinematic 'Fire Engine Dream', an outtake from 2004's Sonic Nurse, complete with brain bending guitars.
By the time the set-closer, a twenty-five minute long alternate take of 1995's 'The Diamond Sea' comes around, and despite the tracks where Thurston Moore sounds like he's replaced the strings on his guitar with barbed wire, and the tracks where Kim Gordon's singing makes Sandi Thom sound like Aretha Franklin, you're still left with the feeling that this wasn't quite as forebodingly experimental or jet-setting as it could have been. And for many people, that will be no bad thing.
Bash is a freelance music journalist from The Shire. He hates skiing and snowboarding, but does occasionally go sledging.