Nothing is more thrilling than having your prior assumptions about music totally shattered. Case in point: my idiotic belief that the EP was nothing more than supplemental balderdash, a quick musical stroke-job before the final consummation that comes with an actual album. Deerhunter’s Fluorescent Grey was the first blast of the trumpet for me (despite knowing that the extended play has quite an interesting legacy). It showed in no less than sixteen minutes that an EP can sometimes be more compelling than its larger, more fully shaped brother. The Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band EP, the spiritual sister to Newsome’s just plain awesome Ys LP, is the latest in a series of releases to challenge my own sonic orthodoxy.
The EP contains two slightly reworked versions of previously released material (“Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” from 2004’s Milk-Eyed Mender, and an acoustic “Cosmia” from the aforementioned Ys, respectively) and one new song, “Colleen.” They were recorded sans orchestra in just three days, subsequent to Newsom losing her voice and thus having to cancel a few shows in the final leg of her American tour. All these song titles are alliterative, which is nicely Nabokovian. They are also, for the most part, excellent, and each one brings something new.
Although not a wholesale sequel to the brilliant Ys, the EP still smokes. “Colleen” is about a girl lost at sea then washed ashore and (metaphorically, at least) reborn; it also solves the millennia-spanning quest for a coherent rhyme with the word “baleen.” Like a David Lynch film, it’s difficult to discern whether the lyrics are sheer genius or utterly dumb, but if you take the time to parse the text a bit, it slowly begins to yield an extraordinary, almost heartbreaking examination of identity and displacement in the last place you ever thought you’d find one. “Well they took me in and shod my feet/ And taught me prayers for chastity/ And said my name would be Colleen,/ and I was blessed among all women,/ To have forgotten everything.” For me, part of what made Ys so stunning was the subtle transformation of Newsom’s voice from Milk-Eyed Mender‘s pre-adolescent whine to a far more robust and adult vocal, and so “Colleen” provides a welcome continuation of these new chops. In fact, I’d say that Joanna Newsom is at this point probably the best female vocalist in popular music this side of Bjork.
After a brief furlough into what to my mind is mediocre territory for Newsom with “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” (I really didn’t like the original version, either) comes “Cosmia,” a great song that everyone should know already. The original is superior by about a hair, but this incarnation is still righteous, even without the sheer scale and epic “I’m-gonna-roast-all-the-vessels-in-your-body-with-my-genius” orchestration. It nearly achieves the same effect through radically different means: pure, stripped-down musicianship.