Joanna Newsom's 2004 debut LP The Milk-Eyed Mender was a love-it-or-hate-it affair, beguiling those who could handle its twee, harp-laced fairy-folk, and irritating those who couldn't. Newsom is likely to further alienate her detractors—and maybe some of her fans—with Ys, a 55-minute, five-cut album that abandons The Milk-Eyed Mender's sprightliness for rambling, freeform songs that resemble Joni Mitchell in a stream-of-consciousness mood. On songs like "Only Skin," Newsom delivers lengthy monologues in her distinctive nasal trill, and it's sometimes tough to follow where she's going, even with the nimble Van Dyke Parks-supervised orchestral arrangements. But for those willing to let go a little and drift, Ys can be an amazing journey, especially when Parks' strings and Newsom's harp lock into a seductive dance, or when her voice catches one of the fleeting snatches of melody and rides it until it escapes. On the album's first two songs, "Emily" and "Monkey & Bear," the tempos and vocal cadences change rapidly, in a headlong tumble that will leave some listeners far behind, while pushing others to catch up as fast as they can.
For those who want the feel of Newsom without quite the same level of challenge, there's always In My Own Time, a reissue of the 1971 album by one of Newsom's inspirations, Karen Dalton. A staple of the '60s Greenwich Village folk scene, Dalton sang in a mewling voice that recalled Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, with a thick streak of Maybelle Carter. In My Own Time puts that voice in the context of hippie Americana, in songs that follow loping rhythms and rely on skittering fiddles and brassy horns. Dalton's covers of "When A Man Loves A Woman" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" wrap rustic charm around a raw, stung core, but the album's real coup is its version of "In A Station." Arguably The Band's best and trickiest song, it's honored by a performance as relaxed and supple as a morning stretch.