Three years ago, if you had told me a childlike pixie with a harp and a Renaissance wardrobe would make some of the best records of the '00s, I would have told you to go back to Iceland. But dammit if Joanna Newsom didn't do just that, first with her Appalachian-tinged debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and now with Ys, an ambitiously pretty five-song LP that stands among the best albums of the year. Opener "Emily" will break your heart from the start, what with its tender music-box melody and Newsom cooing a celestial torrent of perfectly crafted lyrics ("The meteorite is the source of the light/And the meteor's just what we see/And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee/And the meteorite's just what causes the light/And the meteor's how it's perceived/And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee." Jesus.). Newsom can soar all by her lonesome, but she's found the perfect collaborator in Van Dyke Parks, the composer and arranger most famous for his work on The Beach Boys' Smile, whose cinematic string arrangement ensures "Emily" your full attention for a whole 12 minutes. And that's just the first song. The baroque "Monkey & Bear" could easily be a track off a classic, pre-Peabo Bryson Disney soundtrack, while "Only Skin" mixes tasteful horns, accordions and banjos through its 16 minutes before boyfriend Bill Callahan drops by to lend his bass to a choir of multi-tracked Newsoms. If you're not a convert by the time "Cosmia" gives "Shenandoah" a run for its Americana money, then the terrorists have won.
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