Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For today’s feature, we’re continuing our examination of the Drag City catalogue with an in-depth look at one of their crowning releases: Joanna Newsom’s brilliantly unique ‘Ys’.
Although one of her generation’s most revered cult artists at this point, Joanna Newsom’s reputation as an auteur of considerable originality still had yet to be cemented around the release of 2006’s ‘Ys’. It had been preceded by 2004’s ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ – a charmingly off-beat collection which nevertheless proved a considerable niche success, despite being too resolutely odd to bother the mainstream. ‘Ys’, her second and arguably most enduring album – despite a pair of ambitious, engaging albums since – marked such a profound maturation of her craft that it became something of a sleeper hit. Even the best part of a decade and a half on from its original release, it remains a beloved record for many, and it’s not difficult to see why. Co-produced by Newsom herself alongside the venerable Van Dyke Parks, the contributions of Steve Albini, Jim O’Rourke and Bill Callahan help the album to read as something of a who’s who of the era’s indie royalty but it’s testament to Newsom’s remarkable abilities as both a writer and vocalist that she remains the focal point throughout this grandiose hour-long collection. It’s her nimble harp work and deftly emotive voice which serve as ‘Ys’ fulcrum but it’s Van Dyke Parks’s ever-shifting arrangements which allow the album to resonate with a deeper impact. Strings and woodwind ebb and flow with the same nuance as Newsom’s subtlety lilting vocals, counterbalancing her intricately picked harp lines and gleefully imaginative lyricism with a degree of subtlety possessed by few records to bear such extensive orchestral arrangement. Wildly ambitious yet articulated with complete confidence, ‘Ys’ is a truly remarkable album.
We’ve reviewed numerous titles from US indie institution Drag City here on Vinyl Corner and we’ve always been highly impressed by the quality of their vinyl releases. Although the label have put out their fair share of frenzied rock workouts in their time, they’ve also released just as many hushed sonic reveries and, as anyone even passingly familiar with Newsom will know, her work falls resolutely into the latter category. It’s doubly important, then, that the vinyl release ‘Ys’ can boast a clean pressing, as any surface noise would be especially audible in such a quiet musical context. Fortunately, no such issues are apparent here. As per usual with Drag City’s releases, ‘Ys’ has been pressed by the elder-statesmen of American wax: Record Technology Incorporated. They’ve been producing LPs for the best part of fifty years now and, at this point, they’re perhaps the definitive US-based pressing plant, so it’s of little surprise that ‘Ys’ is such a clean pressing. Clearly intent on ensuring the album’s sonic quality from the get-go, Drag City also hired the services of the legendary Abbey Road studios for mastering duties and, as would be expected of such a prestigious institute’s input, there’s no shortage of clarity or detail in the soundscape. The clean surfaces – which boast an impressive lack of the minor crackle and popping so often found on modern pressings – only enrich the impressive sonics, helping to elevate them to a genuinely satisfying listening experience.
While it’s clear that Drag City had no reservations in making the vinyl release of ‘Ys’ a sonic treat, even a cursory glance at the packaging makes it clear that sumptuous presentation was an equally pressing concern. The gorgeous cover art is the presentation’s single greatest asset and it’s far better admired adorning an LP cover than on the smaller artwork of a CD insert or, worse still, a few pixels on a smartphone audio player. If Newsom’s articulate command of language and anachronistically old-world sonic vision suggest something half-medieval and half-hippy, then the authentically aged yet charming presentation only reinforces that notion. The cover itself is a thick-spined, broad gatefold manufactured from heavy-duty paste-on cardstock. It feels great in hand and is undoubtedly rock-solid but, impressive as that is, it’s the eleven page, full-sized lyric and art book pasted onto the inner-gatefold spread which truly amazes. It’s a gorgeous addition executed with the same eye for detail as the music itself. The paper stock is impressive, the print quality is excellent and the layout is gorgeous. We’ve covered some beautifully presented releases for Vinyl Corner over the years but, overall, this is undoubtedly one of the most impressive. While we wouldn’t go so far as to recommend purchasing a record unless you intend on actually playing it (and why wouldn’t you, when the music is as good as ‘Ys’?), there’s certainly a strong case for the presentation on this vinyl release being impressive enough to excel as a standalone piece of art.
The vinyl release of ‘Ys’ epitomises so much of what makes Drag City a great label. Newsom’s vision is truly uncompromised and, reflective of that, nothing about the album’s vinyl release is half-hearted. The pressing quality is excellent, the sonics are rich and the presentation is exceptional. This is an essential work in the canon of modern experimental music and the vinyl releases reflects that through and through.
Enjoyed this feature? We’re always looking for further albums to highlight on Vinyl Corner – and if you have a vinyl release that you’d love to see written about here, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – it would be great to hear from you!