Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sufjan Stevens -- Illinois

You'll hear Sufjan's (pronounced SOOF-YAHN's - an Arabic/Persian name that predates Islam) electronic keyboard beginnings in the midst of swelling orchestral arrangements and hideously-long-titled songs [case in point, "Oh God Where are you Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?"] about growing up in Detroit, Michigan, on his first concept release, Michigan, issued in 2003. He had three previous releases, A Sun Came, Enjoy Your Rabbit, and Seven Swans. He has a Christian bent and following but self-promotes saying he does not "overtly advertise himself in this respect." I never detected any preaching in my listenings.

The media didn't really find Sufjan until his second concept CD, Illinois, was released two years later. *Note: the actual CD is titled Sufjan Stevens Invites You to Come on feel the Illinoise. Avalanche (subtitled The Avalanche - Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album), Sufjan's sixth release, was just released featuring embellished and honed outtakes from the Illinoise CD conceptual library.

He has promised no less than 50 concept CD's - one for every state in the union (although at times, the gesture comes across as tongue-in-cheek and garnered him more acclaim for his second concept album, Illinios, than might have otherwise been garnered). Oregon and Rhode Island are rumoured to be next. He has some serious catching up to do if he's going to complete this outrageous goal. His Avalanche tour begins this month with select larger cities on the list and a small string ensemble and brass section (see Austin City Limits Music Fest reference/rumour at the end of this post).

Stevens is one of those "you'll either love him or hate him" falsetto-range artists that issues grandiose productions filled with extensive lists of instruments he's learned how to play since first sitting down to pound out a note on his trusty Casio keyboard with inserted loop sounds (like crickets chirping). His music is filled with horns, woodwinds, banjos, keyboards, and all manner of percussion (from shakers to sleigh bells). He writes, arranges, and produces his own recordings released by two independent music organizations -- Sounds Familyre and Asthmatic Kitty Records (a label he founded with his step-father).

For every blasting review you read, there's an equal counter of praise for his stylistic interpretations of life in Michigan and Illinois. Avalanche uses Illinois to cull his young adulthood memories into an outtake for the remaining second CD for the original epic. The material he developed was simply too unwieldly for one CD so he broke it into two instead.

Stevens uses well-known poets, writers, celebrities, and news clippings from each state to form the backbone for his songs. He researchers them voraciously to find new ways to incorporate their genius. I wonder who might stumble upon his genius to develop a visual accompaniment to the musical playground he's created. The CD's play like grand visceral operas much like Rufus Wainwright's work.

The tempo, emphasis, and vocals cry out for careful listening but you can't help but throw his CD's on for background filler. Some songs clock in at more than nine minutes on Michigan -- a more manageable seven minutes on Illinois. Not that elapsed song time has any indication of sheer enjoyment: "Green Grass and High Tides" and "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" as illustrations of that point.

Illinois is much more upbeat than Michigan, to be sure, but it also harbors its share of melancholy meanderings. You'll also find more female background singers on Illinois which adds to the bouyancy of the effort. And ... a humanizing look at serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (some say he has a fascination with him - of that, he's not alone, I'm sure). Some (one reviewer in particular: Stephen Thomas Erlewine at allmusic dot com) compare him to a teenager that never grew beyond writing impish, self-effacing, overblown songs. I have to disagree. Sufjan studies such a diverse array of people and subjects so voraciously that his reach is far beyond that of a child.

My favorite song on both albums is the six-minute "Chicago" on Illinois. It's big and bold and driving one minute and then, filled with a chorus reminding me of how life changes in small steps with recognition far behind the actual event that drove the change.

"You came to take us. All things go. All things go. To re-create us. All things go. All things go. We had our mind set. All things know. All things know. You had to find it. All things go. All things go."

They're both gorgeous CD's and worth a few listens on a foggy Sunday morning that eventually gives way to a beautiful sunny afternoon filled with good friends and memories of life in your town.

If you want to find out more about Sufjan Stevens or buy his CD's check out Asthmatic Kitty. The rumour mill is churning on whether or not Sufjan will play Austin City Limits Music Festival this September 15 at 9:00 p.m. Will he, or won't he? It would make my ACL trip a much greater one, I'm sure. Methinks he's playing the Paramount Theater for $30 seated in Level One in Austin for two dates at the same time. Hopes be dashed to hell and back!


Blogger Mr. Curiosity said...

I've heard that there are a few prime time slots available, hopefully he'll fill one.


5:28 AM  

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