Saturday, January 07, 2006

catch-up: Sufjan/M. Ward

Sufjan Stevens, Come On, Feel The Illinoise - I didn't jump on Sufjan's bandwagon immediately; 2003's Michigan struck me as inordinately depressing and obscenely long, a killer combination. Where others heard exquisite sensitivity and a literary feel for lyrics, I could only hear the endless droning of depressed pianos and banjos picking their way into oblivion. It made sense, given the state's weather, but I couldn't handle it, cutting the thing into a third of its length for the iPod. Then I sat around and bitched about how the indie vanguard had left me behind.

Illinois is a vast improvement, although Stevens is still kind of monotonous if you're not sympathetically inclined. He doesn't do his own drums (one of the few instruments he doesn't play), but he's apparently only calling for a few different drum patterns: any upbeat song is likely to get the same rolling-tom pattern as the others, which is kind of annoying. But Illinois offers a greater palate of emotional ambiguity than Michigan, which was practically bipolar. Aside from the hysterical "John Wayne Gacy Jr." (a song I don't much care for, but which does uncork Sufjan's falsetto to pleasing effect), the songs don't ping back and forth between celebration and suicidal tendencies. E.g., after two short opening tracks, Sufjan plunges into the 6:45 of "Come On! Feel The Illinoise!," a song as excited about such arcane opportunities as an exposition to showcase the city and The Future as it is nervous about the applications. So it goes, a constant tension between optimism and reckoning which keeps things steady.

Stevens has done frightening amounts of research, pulling out references even I can't suss out; he's up there with Stephin Merritt vying for the title of Most Literate Indie Rocker. He also has broadened his arrangements a bit, even finding room for the occasional electric, amplified voice (even a guitar - with distortion crunch! - on "The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts") in songs that could otherwise be performed live and would already be unplugged. My favorite bit of homage is perhaps the least literate: "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!!" etc. adheres strictly to the rules and logic of a zombie film. "I know my time has come," sings Sufjan, "I'm not so young, I'm not so strong." Exactly right. That song, incidentally, sounds like the lo-fi approximation of a 70s soul recording - sweeping strings, back-up chorus, swinging drums - to go along with Sufjan's much-noted interest in drones, loops, et al.

It's much easier to jump on the Stevens initiative - "Say Yes! To Sufjan!" as his more unimaginative groupies paraphrase one of his songs - now that the songs are more universally sunny and balanced. I do wish it wasn't 75 minutes long - the world could certainly do without "A Conjunction Of Drones," for example, although then Sufjan might lose cred for ditching his higher-ground influences - and that Dave Eggers hadn't written the obscenely long song titles (I still don't know what the songs are called, technically), but I'll gladly wade through the excess now that it's not so dark. Homeboy still needs to diversify, though...Texas better not sound like this, is all I'm saying.

M. Ward, Transistor Radio - like Sufjan, Ward traffics frequently in lyrical arcana, though seemingly it comes naturally to him, without any research. His is an Americana that doesn't cloy or naggingly insist on "authenticity" as a token of quality: in other words, it's devoid of annoying extra-musical connotations of worth frequently brought to their music of choice by country/roots fans. Transistor Radio sounds like World War II love songs broadcast through a time-traveling AM station in the middle of the night. The language of the past flows effortlessly from Ward, as when he refers to "Sweethearts On Parade," practically making you salivate for an Esther Williams musical (his smoky, somewhat jazzy vocals help too). Ward's sharp-eyed blend of the past and present throws in Beach Boys covers and electric guitars as needed, but it's all one entrancing unit. It's a perfect companion to the (far messier, less coherent) All Night Radio album Spirit Stereo Frequency, which did the same thing for druggy 60s psychadelia. I like this album a lot, at least in part because it taps into a past which I'm just as home in as Ward, but it takes the musical language beyond nostalgia.


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