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Joanna Newsom's Miniature Americana Symphony

Joanna Newsom sings in a craggy, elfin drawl.
Joanna Newsom sings in a craggy, elfin drawl.

On paper, Joanna Newsom's "Emily" seems like the kind of thing that would make ordinary mortals run screaming from the room — or at least quickly hit "skip" on their iPods. Start with her voice, a craggy elfin drawl. Add in a harp (not as in "mouth harp," or harmonica, but that other kind of harp), lyrics about "the meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree," and a 12-minute length that would make Yes proud. And let's not forget the moment when Newsom refers to "pa," followed by a few frails of a too-corny-for-words banjo.

So why, oh why, is it so hard not to keep returning to "Emily," the first (and best) track on Newsom's second album? Perhaps because nothing else released last year sounds quite like it. It's a miniature Americana symphony, complete with distinct movements and dramatic, soundtrack-worthy string accents courtesy of Van Dyke Parks, the old-school arranger who (thanks to his collaborations with Brian Wilson) knows a thing or two about making oddballs palatable.

In interviews, Newsom has said that "Emily" is about her sister and her fascination with astrology. That's certainly likely, but it also seems to be about comfort and guidance, as heard in the refrain: "Help me find my way back in / from the place where I have been." "Emily" is like an amble down a twisting, mysterious country road, with Newsom as an eccentric mountain-girl guide. But it's a road worth traveling, regardless of where it may lead next.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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David Browne
David Browne is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth and Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Spin and other outlets.