Joanna Newsom, a classically trained harpist embraced by an indie aud, has released an ambitious album, “Ys” (Drag City), a five-song cycle that has received considerable acclaim for its orchestral arrangements, courtesy of Van Dyke Parks. Newsom anchored her 90-minute set by performing the ornate, flowing musical suite that comprises “Ys,” bookending it with a trio of songs from her 2004 release “The Milk Eyed Mender”; it demonstrated a marked evolution between her two albums.
Structure of the new work, a complex narrative of love and desire eschewing traditional song structures, illuminated a progression in her skills as a songwriter and confidence as a performer. Without the backing of an orchestra, Newsom and her harp were instead augmented by tambura, banjo, glockenspiel and musical saw. The result sounded far more organic and it naturally integrated with Newsom’s delicate songwriting. As the only “Ys” song without orchestration, “Sawdust & Diamonds” served the starkest contrast with Newsom’s earlier songwriting. Building to a mesmerizing vocal crescendo, it demonstrated Newsom’s new songs as bigger in scope, more expansive in range and clearly more ambitious. This material makes significantly higher demands of the aud — 15-minute complex metaphorical narratives lacking traditional pop structures — but is all the more rewarding for it.
These days, opener Bill Callahan is better known as Newsom’s partner, but under the nom de plume Smog he’s been carving his own idiosyncratic niche for some 15 years. Judging by the morals and ethics of their lyrics, Callahan and Newsom clearly share certain philosophies and attitudes but their styles of expression are polar opposites.
On the surface Callahan seems cold and distant, but his lyrics and performance are Hemingwayesque in their ability to communicate a wealth of information through direct simplicity. Mirrored in his performance, each word, each phrase, every chord is purposeful and precise. Where he would previously strain with concentration to sing that word or play that note just so, on this night Callahan exhibited a looser side, playing “Bathysphere” with a degree of abandon. New song “Sycamore” showed him at ease crafting a sparse metaphor with rich subtext.