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Ys-Joanna Newsom

(Drag City)

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This may be the most divisive album of 2006. It's certainly one of the most ambitious, with the biggest potential for either embarrassment or triumphant success and a wide rift between the two. Listeners will either love or loathe Joanna Newsom's pretensions: the album title named after an ancient city (pronounced "ees"), the swooping string arrangements courtesy of Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Newsom's harp accompaniment and petulant-sounding voice, her Ren Fest melodies and fantastical lyrics. At times, her seriousness can be unbearable and her storytelling tedious (as on the 10-minute "Bear & Monkey"), but the album nevertheless casts a particular spell, mainly because Newsom remains so fearlessly at the forefront, like an actress who appears in every frame of a movie. Her voice, pitched high and dramatic, leaves no room for overtures or even breaths but ebbs and tides from verse to verse, implying hooks where there are none. ("Emily," "Cosmia") -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

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