Ys-Joanna Newsom 

(Drag City)

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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