Monday, August 23, 2010

New music August!

Summer marches on, another year of school starts, and I wonder where all the time has gone. I'm mostly over the broken hip now, which is a relief. I've gotten in some good bike rides lately. More on that, perhaps, in a later entry. For now, some brief thoughts on a couple of exciting new albums that dropped this month.

August, it turns out, contained releases from two of the heavyweights of the indie music scene, and both will undoubtedly be in many conversations for album of the year. Early in the month, Arcade Fire unleashed their third album, The Suburbs, amidst much hype, which it more than lived up to. In contrast, Sufjan Stevens made many people's days (weeks, months, years?) when last week he released a new EP completely out of nowhere. Well, it's called an "EP," but like the new Arcade Fire album, Sufjan's All Delighted People EP clocks in at an hour long - despite containing half as many tracks.

Looking back to five years ago, both of these artists were significant in the evolution of my music tastes. In 2005, my music horizons broadened greatly. It was an exciting time, as I discovered artist after artist putting out great music I had never heard before. I remember looking up numerous albums on Amazon. You know how they have a section for "Customers who bought this album also bought"? I couldn't help but notice that for almost every band I looked up, Arcade Fire's Funeral appeared there. So I bought it, and today it's still one of my favorite albums ever. Although I still consider their debut LP their strongest effort, Neon Bible was an excellent followup, and now I'd say The Suburbs is an even better third release. A couple great things about Arcade Fire - each of their albums is an evolution in their sound, and each of their albums is a real, cohesive album. "Sprawl II" is an amazing song, definitely one of my favorites of the year, but it wouldn't be nearly as powerful if the album hadn't been building perfectly to that point. It's pretty likely that The Suburbs will end up being my top album of the year, and the only band with a string of three albums that I would collectively rate as better than Arcade Fire's first three LPs is Okkervil River (Down the River of Golden Dreams, Black Sheep Boy, and The Stage Names would be my pick there).

Back to 2005. Sufjan Stevens at the Beachland Ballroom was the first big concert I went to after getting into the indie music scene. It was a great show, and I thoroughly enjoyed Illinois, but it's really been in the past year that I've gotten more and more into Sufjan. He's a brilliant artist, but at times it feels like he could use an editor. Illinois is a great album, and its high points are stunning, but it's also a bit longer than it really should be. The (much) less grandiose Seven Swans may actually be his best album. Actually, this probably sounds funny, but my personal favorite Sufjan release is Songs for Christmas Vol. 5. "Sister Winter," "Star of Wonder," and "Holy, Holy, Holy" are three of his greatest and most beautiful songs.

Anyway, I was lucky enough to see Sufjan again last fall, and it was another great show. I admit, though, that I had a mixed reaction to the new material he played then. He's definitely grown much more experimental in his sound. I felt like some of the new stuff was breathtaking, but some of it left me . . . well, somewhat confused. "All Delighted People," the title track from the new EP, was one of the new songs he played, and at 11+ minutes, it had enough in it that I was able to have both reactions within one song. Having listened to it more now, it's definitely grown on me. The last few minutes are especially gorgeous. There are still spots in the song where I feel Sufjan goes a bit over-the-top; at this point I'm pretty sure I prefer the 8-minute "Classic Rock Version," which is probably my favorite track on the EP. The rest of the album contains five shorter, more straightforward (relatively speaking) songs, with "The Owl and the Tanager" being a definite highlight, and closes with the 17-minute "Djohariah." Know what I said earlier about sometimes feeling Sufjan could use an editor? Well, surprisingly, I don't think this is one of those times. The final track really works for me, and the 17 minutes don't drag at all.

So, August has been a good month for music. Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens both released albums that will be showing up on lots of end-of-the-year lists. Personally, I rank Arcade Fire's higher, but anyone who is at all into this sort of music would be crazy to miss out on either of these albums. It's a good time to be a music fan!

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