(Drag City)The word "lavish" has been hanging around patiently in dictionaries and thesauri for years, just waiting to apply itself to the new Joanna Newsom CD. The eccentric harpist/poet/ songbird has seen fit to follow up her rough-hewn, craftswomanlike debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender (appropriately dressed down in hand-stitched cover art), with a huge, dazzlingly orchestrated, and, yes, lavish set of extended suites (replete with an "old Flemish master"–style cover portrait of the artiste).
Ys contains only five tracks but nonetheless clocks in at just under an hour. Each song moves at a leisurely pace, but the effect comes off less as opulent-for-opulence's-sake than as a rare demonstration of taking the time to stop and smell the musical flora. And what a garden of aural delights has been concocted! Newsom's exquisite harp and defiantly individualistic vocals were recorded with no-frills, you-are-there clarity by indie-rock stalwart Steve Albini, and those basic tracks were then set to orchestrations by legendary arranger (and one-time Beach Boys lyricist) Van Dyke Parks. These two sessions were then seamlessly mixed together by avant-gardist-turned-studio-wiz Jim O'Rourke (Wilco, Sonic Youth). The results of all this loving toil are both weirdly familiar and unlike anything you've likely been privileged to hear before.
The first piece, "Emily" (named for and featuring backing vocals by Newsom's sister), is haunting and vivid, describing an idyllic but frightening dream with such conviction and detail that it seems to unfold before the listener in real time, with lyrics like "so the muddy mouths of baboons and sows, and the grouse and the horse and the hen/Grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen," which, believe it or not, read much freakier than they sound tripping from the singer's tongue. The following track, "Monkey & Bear," continues the animal motif and begins with multitracked Newsom vocals sounding like nothing so much as sugar-plum fairies (or Lullaby League members) come to life. Each song contains a certain spooky, homespun mysticism ("I wasn't born from a whistle, or milked from a thistle at twilight/No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright," from "Sawdust & Diamonds") as well as a sly, word-drunk wit ("Scrape your knee. It is only skin/Makes the sound of violins," from "Only Skin"). With Ys, Joanna Newsom and her collaborators have constructed a self-contained omniverse of sound, one that threatens to close up behind the listener, taking you with it when the disc deigns to stop spinning. Not a bad way to go, really. SCOTT FAINGOLD
This doesn't sound like a Willie Nelson record, and it doesn't sound like a Ryan Adams record. Dunno what it sounds like, to be honest, save for some show-offy mash-up that does less to pump up Shotgun Willie than shoot his legs out from under him. Not that pairing Nelson with Adams—as producer and performer and bandleader with his Cardinals—was a bad idea; far from it, as Nelson, who releases new product every time he buys a dime bag, has proved he's capable of exhaling a masterpiece out of unlikely collaborations (cf. Across the Borderline). And there are some essential moments: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (it's about time) and Nelson's own "Sad Songs and Waltzes" among the generous handful. But the fair-to-fine covers are more Adams' than Nelson's— gee, wonder who the Grateful Dead and Gram Parsons fan is in this partnership—and it shows, as Nelson gets tangled in Adams' electrified guitar strings on his way to the worst cover of "Amazing Grace" ever recorded by a guy who shoulda known better. ROBERT WILONSKY
Fuzzy Warbles Collector's Album
He hates to tour, but give XTC founder Andy Partridge recording equipment, and, oy, but he goes to town. Recorded at home over the course of many years, Fuzzy Warbles collects Partridge- polished "rough draft" songs for XTC albums—he plays and sings everything. This nine-disc edition (you read right—but they're available separately) trumpets Partridge's brilliance as a song craftsperson of the highest order, a genetic crossbreed of pop wizards Todd Rundgren (who produced XTC's Skylarking), Lennon and McCartney, and Sufjan Stevens. The range here is kaleidoscopic—"Ship Trapped in the Ice," a whimsical pop-psych homage to Revolver-era Beatles and solo Lennon; the Merseybeat-like "My Train Is Coming," recasting the Fab Four circa "I Call Your Name"; the forlorn acoustic balladry of "All I Dream of Is a Friend"; the dense, blistering, irresistible power-pop of "Sonic Boom"; and the reflective, idyllic "I Gave My Suitcase Away," evoking Sunflower/Surf's Up Beach Boys (1970–71, fyi). While only the truest believer will spring for the whole set, those continuously pursuing Quirky Pop Valhalla should mos def get an individual volume or three. MARK KERESMAN