Monday, December 17, 2012

Sufjan Stevens at the Beachland Ballroom, 12/16/12

I'm fairly convinced that Sufjan Stevens is a genius.  I'm also convinced that he's a pretty weird guy, and that he's aware of this.  Last night, after stumbling over some lyrics early on in his new epic 12-minute holiday masterpiece "Christmas Unicorn," he wryly said, "Who wrote these lyrics, anyway?"  Oh yeah, and let's not forget that he was wearing an elaborate unicorn headdress festooned with balloons and feathers at the time.

There's just something about the guy.  I mean, who does these things?  How many indie folk musicians would bedeck themselves with sparkles and balloons and a unicorn horn during a show?  How many indie folk musicians would release 10 discs of Christmas music, one disc for each year, in two 5 disc sets, each packaged with all sorts of extras ranging from stickers to deep, thoughtful essays on the holiday season to temporary tattoos?  How many indie folk musicians would close an album (The Age of Adz) with a 25 minute pop song ("Impossible Soul")?  How many people, period, could even write a 25 minute pop song and make the whole thing absolutely brilliant?  And how many people could get a room full of mostly twenty-and-thirty-something indie music fans to boisterously sing along to a series of traditional Christmas carols?

I certainly had high expectations for Sufjan's concert at the Beachland, where I'd seen him twice previously.  Both were great shows, and I was excited to see him perform his holiday music, which I love.  That's something I never would have thought I'd say as recently as a few years ago.  I can't say that I ever had any particular fondness for Christmas music before I started listening to Sufjan's Songs For Christmas collection.  I fell in love with the first five disc release, both for the beautiful renditions of traditional carols and (especially) for some of the best original songs of Sufjan's career.  This year he came out with the second five disc set.  It's easily even more ambitious than the first, and I'm beginning to feel that it's just as great.  So Cara and I headed over to the venue a half hour before doors opened, hoping we'd be able to get a decent spot near the stage (last time we'd been near the back), and fortunately, the line was not yet too long when we got there.

I knew beforehand that the show was going to be quite a spectacle, but when I walked into the ballroom, my eyes instantly widened at what I saw.  The stage was all decked out in holiday cheer, and that was nice enough, but to the left of the stage...

There was a giant, colorful, game-show-style wheel stretching from floor to ceiling with the names of different Christmas carols festively decorating it.  One might have guessed that this wheel would be spun during the show to select the songs that would be used for the sing-a-long portion of the night, and one would have been right.  This was all tremendous fun.  There were even hymn booklets handed out at the entrance to ensure that everyone could sing along.  Here's the cover (make note of the instructions printed on it):

Perhaps ten or twelve carols were performed sing-along style, with Sufjan, his band and the audience all celebrating the holidays together.  This was divided into two segments of the main set, the rest of which was a stunning display of musicianship easily up to the standards of any "normal" Sufjan Stevens performance.  I'm truly amazed at the diversity of his catalog, from his early acoustically focused songs to his more electronic and experimental recent stuff.  His Christmas music covers the same range.  Sufjan's music can at times be catchy, rousing, or majestic, but at its best, I'd usually describe it as "heartachingly beautiful."  A prime example would be "For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti," a fan favorite from the Michigan album featuring Sufjan's amazing voice and banjo playing which was inserted as a brief, non-Christmas interlude in the middle of the main set.  Several of his holiday songs are just as chills-inducing.  My favorite is probably "Sister Winter," which was an absolute thrill to see performed live.  I also loved "Justice Delivers Its Death," a new song in which Sufjan seems to ponder the strange contradiction of a holiday meant to celebrate Christ's birth that is celebrated with rampant consumption and consumerism.

There were several short hymns which Sufjan and his band performed a cappella, filling the ballroom with angelic harmonies.  And at other points in the show, there were bubble and confetti machines, and inflatable Santas and unicorns and enormous bouncing balls thrown into the crowd.

And then there was Sufjan, dressed as the Christmas Unicorn, climbing up onto a speaker directly above where Cara and I were standing, during an astonishingly good song that goes from gentle, playful verses to an increasingly majestic chorus before transitioning into an irresistibly danceable cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart."  It was truly a magical moment, and one that only Sufjan could pull off.  "Christmas Unicorn" closed out the main set perfectly.  After several minutes of unrelenting applause from an enraptured audience, Sufjan returned to the stage sans holiday attire for a perfect encore that filled me with nostalgia for more than one reason.

You see, the first concert I ever attended at the Beachland was Sufjan Stevens on September 13, 2005.  (I know the exact date because we have a poster from the show hanging in our apartment.  I didn't actually buy the poster at the show, but found it at a local shop years later.)  Not only was it my first concert at the Beachland, it was at that point in my life that going to concerts became a "thing" that I did.  In a sense, it was the beginning of a new era in my life.  At that show seven years ago, Sufjan was touring his breakthrough Illinois album, and last night's encore was quite Illinois-heavy, including "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," another one of those heartachingly beautiful songs on which Sufjan's voice and lyrics do things that no one else's can.  As I stood there, I couldn't help but think of being in the same room, hearing the same music more than seven years ago, and of all the ways my life had changed since then.  In a way, it was like things had come full circle.

After playing "Come On! Feel the Illinoise!" Sufjan said he thought they had time for one more song.  I was silently hoping for one song in particular, and when he laid down the opening notes of "Chicago" on piano I was overjoyed.  "Chicago," after all, was the song Cara and I used for the recessional of our wedding, and now we were standing together, perhaps ten feet away from Sufjan Stevens himself, seeing the song performed live.  (Amazingly, earlier this year we also got to see a live performance of our wedding's first dance song, Bowerbirds' "Northern Lights.")  Talk about a perfect way to end the night!

During the show, some of the stage banter included joking about how the world was supposedly going to end in a few days.  And I thought to myself, if the world were going to end, this was a good concert to go out on!

I'm the Christmas Unicorn.  You're the Christmas Unicorn too.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Springsteen on the mind

The Amazon MP3 store recently had Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. among its sale albums.  I like Springsteen's music, but had very little of it in my collection (only Born to Run from a previous Amazon sale), so, given that Born in the U.S.A. is considered another classic album, I decided to grab it.

When I listened to it, something happened that I consider pretty remarkable.

Some background information is in order.  When I was a kid, my dad listened to a lot of Springsteen.  A lot.  Picture several CD towers full of Springsteen albums and concert bootlegs.  Apparently, I was into The Boss as a small child.  I've been told that I liked (as I called it) "Bruce music."  Somewhere around middle school, in what was undoubtedly typical preteen contrarianism, I decided that I didn't really care for Springsteen anymore.  As I matured through high school and college, my opinion swung back toward appreciation, but I didn't go out of my way to listen to much Springsteen.  When I pressed play on my iPod after downloading Born in the U.S.A., it had been many, many years since I last heard the album.

Before that first listen, if you had named any tune from the album besides the title track and asked me to hum it, I'm fairly certain that I would have been at a complete loss.  I had little to no conscious memory of any of the other songs.  Yet upon hearing the album, everything was instantly so familiar.  It was like I had never stopped listening to it over all those years.  I also found that I loved the album.  After a few listens, I'm tempted to consider it one of my favorite albums ever, something that would almost never happen so quickly with a new album.  But to my conscious mind, a few weeks ago, there was essentially no difference between Born in the U.S.A. and an entirely new album.

Think about that.  In my brain, there were neural circuits associated with the music of this album, and they had lain dormant for years upon years.  But there were powerful connections there, because a single listen to the album reactivated them so quickly and so strongly.  The same thing had not happened with Born to Run.  With that album, I knew the very famous title track well, but other than that, only a few bits and pieces rekindled vague memories; there was none of that intense feeling of familiarity.  And this makes a lot of sense - Born to Run was released almost eight years before I was born.  Born in the U.S.A. came out just before my first birthday, and considering my dad's fandom, it's quite possible that it's the album I was exposed to more than any other during my early childhood.  And early childhood is, of course, when the most rapid brain development occurs, when neural plasticity is at its highest.  I suspect that those dormant neural circuits I spoke of were already being formed when I was too young to have any conscious memories - much like how we begin to learn language before we are even a year old.

It makes sense, but it still blows me away.  Just the fact that there are parts of our brains storing specific pieces of music, and we can go years without accessing them, but they're still right there, waiting to be pulled up to conscious thought.  The human brain really is an amazing thing - I wouldn't hesitate to call it the most amazing thing in the known universe.  I'm also blown away by the power music can have over us.  Why did we evolve to be so affected by certain arrangements of sounds?

It's not surprising, really, that the me of today likes this album so much.  Some of my favorite music artists, like Arcade Fire and Pearl Jam, were strongly influenced by Springsteen.  And now, I can appreciate the lyrics in a way that would have been impossible for a child.  But at the same time, I have to guess that nostalgia plays an important role.  At times, when I'm listening to Born in the U.S.A., it seems like I can hear my dad singing along.  It's something I wouldn't have anticipated, and it's rather remarkable.

It's all so fascinating for me to think about, and I just had to get those thoughts out.  So there's my extremely nerdy exploration of the experience of hearing a great album for the first time in many years!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - Here

It's a nice feeling when great music takes you completely by surprise.  I remember well the first time I saw Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros perform live, at the Spot at Case Western Reserve University.  I knew little about the band before the show.  Here was this big group of hippie-looking people with all sorts of instruments playing big, uplifting, utterly irresistible songs that sounded like they came out of the '60s or '70s.  I was enthralled with their performance, and bought their debut album Up From Below without hesitation.  It ended up being my favorite album of 2009The highlight of the album, "Home," a duet with the Magnetic Zeros' frontman Alex Ebert trading off vocals with Jade Castrinos, is one of the happiest love songs I've ever heard, and probably one of my favorite songs ever.  The song helped propel the group to a decent amount of fame, and anyone who watches the NFL regularly probably heard it in the league's commercials.

In some sense, it felt to me like the band had caught lightning in a bottle with Up From Below, so although I was looking forward to the followup Here, I had my doubts that it would live up to its predecessor.  Now, having given a lot of listens to Here, I'm happy to report that those doubts were unnecessary.

I'll admit that the first time I listened to Here, a part of me was waiting for some of the big, rousing numbers that made up much of Up From Below's runtime.  Such a song never really came.  And that's why I consider Here so surprising: after the breakthrough success of their first album, they came out with a followup that is so different in sound, but at the same time, so excellent.  Indeed, the more I listen to Here (which is not an album that should be judged after one or two listens, especially if you're comparing it to its predecessor), the more I'm tempted to say it's just as good as Up From Below.

The album does retain the retro feel of its predecessor, but it's a much more mellow and more intimate affair.  I'm sure some people will be looking for another "Home."  I'd say "Home" was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and it was a wise choice not to try to copy their earlier success.  At the same time, the second track on Here, "That's What's Up," is (in a sense) a sequel to "Home," not in overall sound but in content.  It's another Alex/Jade duet, and whereas "Home" described the experience of falling in love, "That's What's Up" includes lyrics like, "Forever, hey hey love/We been best friends forever darlin, that's what's up!"  It's another very happy song, and I can't help but smile when I listen to it.  Castrinos' powerful vocals are a delight, and she takes lead vocals on "Fiya Wata," another highlight.  Ebert is an excellent vocalist himself, reminiscent of John Lennon at times.

Many songs on Here, such as "I Don't Wanna Pray," sound like they could be a group of friends singing around a campfire.  The album just emanates such great vibes.  Other standout tracks include opener "Man on Fire" and "Mayla," the centerpiece of the album, which takes great advantage of the band's large size as different instruments provide layered textures in a wonderfully chill-sounding song.  Here was self-produced, and I'm really impressed with the overall sound of the album.  I'm no audiophile, so this may not be the best description, but I'm sure some people have heard of the Loudness War, and may have noticed that albums released more than, say, 15 or 20 years ago tend to be less loud than more recent albums.  This is not a good quality of modern music, as the increased loudness means more compression,  less dynamic range, and at times loss of sound quality.  I noticed that when I play Here on my stereo I have to turn the volume up higher, like I would for an album from 30 or 40 years ago.  I feel like this adds to the old-timey nature of the Magnetic Zeros' sound.  The music has more room to breathe, and just has a nice, warm feeling to it.

The world, I think, could use more unabashedly happy folk music.  Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros have now released a second outstanding album of such music, and the gospel-folk of Here makes a wonderful companion piece to the folk-rock of Up From Below.  I very much hope that I will get to see these songs performed live!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Favorite music of 2011

With the new year here, I guess if I want to post a list of my favorite albums from 2011, I had better get to it! It was a strong year for music, from my point of view. I got to listen to a lot of really good albums; some were releases I'd been anticipating and many others were artists I discovered. There were also some great concerts. Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Chicago and The Decemberists at Nautica stand out as two of the most memorable shows I've ever attended. The former was simply one of the most epic experiences of my life, two-and-a-half mind blowing and eardrum rattling hours of post-rock mastery. The latter was an all around great set punctuated by the single most memorable song performance I've witnessed, as a huge cargo ship passed behind the riverside stage in perfect timing with "The Mariner's Revenge Song."

In this post, I decided to list my ten favorite albums of the year. I make no claim that these are the ten best albums of the year; these are strictly my opinions. I listened to about three dozen new albums this year (and at least as many albums from previous years that were new to me). There's undoubtedly lots of great stuff out there that I haven't heard, but this was a good number for me. I like being able to devote extra attention to the stuff I really like, rather than trying to listen to as many different albums as possible.

I'd like to mention When You Left the Fire by The Wilderness of Manitoba, which I reviewed here. It was released in 2011 in the U.S., and would rank pretty highly on my list, but was actually released in 2010 in Canada.

And now, to the countdown.

10. Beirut - The Rip Tide

"Postcards From Italy" off of Beirut's first album, Gulag Orkestar, is one of my favorite songs ever. The words and music together create an amazing mood of nostalgia and of being transported to another time and place. And oh, those horns! Although The Flying Club Cup was pretty good, nothing off of Beirut's sophomore LP really came close, and I found it somewhat disappointing. The Rip Tide, in contrast, has several tracks that evoke similar feelings to "Postcards From Italy," and coming from me, that's saying a lot. Key tracks: "A Candle's Fire," "Santa Fe," "The Rip Tide."

9. My Morning Jacket - Circuital

Here's another band whose previous LP disappointed me, and in this case, a lot of other people as well. Circuital is a nice return to form, just some great roots rock that adds nicely to what the band did on albums like It Still Moves and Z. Key tracks: "Victory Dance," "Circuital," "Holdin on to Black Metal."

8. The Rural Alberta Advantage -Departing

I reviewed this album from the Canadian indie rock trio after it was released. It picks up right where their first album, Hometowns, left off - "
Departing is ten more tracks of the RAA's signature sound - Nils Edenloff's Jeff Mangum-esque vocals over purposefully strummed acoustic guitar and propulsive keyboard and percussion." Although I'd like to see them change up their sound a little more in the future, they certainly haven't worn out their welcome yet; there's some great stuff here. Of special note, Paul Banwatt's drumming is killer, not something you often hear in modern indie rock. Key tracks: "Stamp," "Tornado '87," "Good Night."

7. Odessa Chen - Archives of the Natural World

Odessa Chen is a little known, San Francisco-based artist who I discovered several years ago and whose gorgeously moody music characterized by stirring cello, arpeggiated electric guitar lines, and Chen's strong voice I fell in love with. This is her third album; it was funded by a Kickstarter project which I gladly donated to because I enjoyed her previous albums so much. The title of the album refers to Chen's desire to record the stories of the numerous forms of wildlife that are being driven to extinction by human activity. This serves as an overarching theme for the album, which, musically, is fairly similar to her previous work, with a bit more of a rock side. The appropriately nautical-sounding "Oh, Atlantis!" is a real standout. Key tracks: "Deer Perspectives," "Oh, Atlantis!", "The Mercy of Sound," "Cinders."

6. Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver

This album ranked highly on a lot of people's year-end lists, and I can see why. I was really surprised by the dramatic evolution in sound here, and I personally like this album quite a bit more than the also quite good For Emma, Forever Ago. Key tracks: "Perth," "Holocene," "Calgary."

5. Motopony -Motopony

This is another album that I already reviewed. I guess it's appropriate that it ends up adjacent to Bon Iver on my list, because I wrote, "
In a certain sense, I'd compare this album to Bon Iver's latest. I wouldn't say that Motopony sounds just like Bon Iver (maybe a little) but there is a similarity in that, at its heart, this is a guy with a guitar playing folk music, but then it pulls in all sorts of eclectic instrumentation and stylistic influences and becomes a wonderfully diverse (yet cohesive) collection of songs." There are several songs on this album that are just beautiful. Key tracks: "God Damn Girl," "Wait For Me," "Wake Up."

4. Various Artists - National Parks Project

Here's an album that seems to have flown under just about everyone's radar, and that's a shame. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canada's national parks, the National Parks Project was created, a film and accompanying soundtrack album with contributions from a whopping 39 musicians. As a big fan of Canada's indie music scene, it's not surprising that I've found much to enjoy in this album, with contributing artists including some of my favorites (Mark Hamilton of Woodpigeon and Casey Mecija of Ohbijou) and a whole host of others, such as Kathleen Edwards and Besnard Lakes' Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas. What did surprise me was how well it actually works as an album. There's a tremendous variety of sounds, but it all flows together pretty well, and I can imagine the songs here would go well with the scenes one might encounter in national parks - much of the music tends toward the pastoral or the atmospheric in sound. With twenty tracks, It's a pretty long album, but it's well worth listening to the whole thing. Key tracks: "Welcome to the Dark," "Sunblood," "Mystic Morning," "Wapusk," "Kathleen Lake."

3. Moving Mountains - Waves

After two albums of epic post-rock music with emo vocals, Moving Mountains decided to change things up, leaning more toward the post-hardcore side of their sound with an album of songs that are generally heavier and more to the point. Although I do miss their more drawn out post-rock numbers, this album still has the essence of what makes Moving Mountains' music great, with soaring melodies, heavy riffs, and plenty of emotional intensity. If you are into the sort of music that comprises the rest of my list, there's a chance this won't be your cup of tea, but sometimes it's nice to just rock out. Actually, this is the one album on my list that I'd describe as great workout music. Key tracks: "Where Two Bodies Lie," "Furnace Woods," "Full Circle."

1. Okkervil River - I Am Very Far and Ohbijou - Metal Meets (tie)

Two albums stood well ahead of the pack for me, and when it came down to it, I couldn't decide which one was my favorite. (I previously reviewed both.)
Okkervil River is my favorite band, so I was expecting to love I Am Very Far, and it didn't disappoint. The band definitely pushed their sound to new places, with a variety of instrumentation making this their biggest sounding album. At times raucous, at times gorgeous, and with more of Will Sheff's reliably brilliant lyrics, it's another outstanding addition to the Okkervil catalog. That another band released an album I ended up loving just as much is a testament to how much Ohbijou has grown as a band. They, too, really explored new places with their sound, adding synths and heavier guitars to help create lush dreamscapes, with the string section and Casey Mecija's angelic vocals reminding the listener that this is still the Ohbijou we know and love from their previous releases. Yet this is definitely their most confident-sounding, and in my mind best, album so far. Key tracks: "We Need a Myth," "Show Yourself," "Wake and Be Fine," "The Rise" (I Am Very Far), "Niagara," "Balikbayan," "Anser," "Scalpel Blade" (Metal Meets).