Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sufjan Stevens - Songs For Christmas

I won’t bore you with the story…suffice it to say that, from 2001 until the present, Sufjan Stevens has been recording a Christmas EP per year (with the exception of 2004, when he was working hard on making Illinoise) within the comfort of his own home. He never meant to release them publicly (except for the 2006 recording); rather, they were recorded to give to his family and friends every Christmas. If you want to know the whole story, you’ll have to buy this collection and read the story “Christmas Tube Socks”, which was written by “Santa Sufjan”.
And that helps to sum up this wonderful collection. This is not just a music box set; a collection of Christmas songs new and old. This release is an event, a Christmas present in and of itself, from Sufjan to you. (It sounds cheesy, I know, but stay with me here).
We’ll get to the songs in a second. But first I’ll highlight what you get in the box itself.
You get 5 stickers…one for each cover of the EPs. You also get a fold-out, poster sized comic strip involving Santa (who declares Christmas Eve to be “Chocolate Santa Day”), Mrs. Claus, elves, Sufjan, The Danielson Famile, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and a villain named Evil Sister Winter. As if that weren’t enough, the back of this comic strip is a family picture of The Stevens Clan, complete with an inflatable Santa. Good times. There is also a book that is titled, “Songbook and other stuff”, with a picture of a Charlie Brown-esque tree on the front. The inside is chock full of stories, pictures, and, my favorite part, the lyrics and chords to every single song included in this set. Not only can you sing along with the CD, but you can also play along with them. Or, if you’d prefer, sitting around in a circle on Christmas, and singing them with your family (I think he’d like that).
And then there’s the music. Oh, the music. With Low’s Christmas album out there, it’d be tough to say that this is the best Christmas collection ever released…but it definitely comes close.
Being 5 CDs and 42 songs long, one can see how it might get old after a while. That’s a viable fear, but one that doesn’t really hold water. It drags a bit in places, but, for the most part, every song on here is gold (Jerry…Gold!). He does an amazing job of mixing Christmas classics (and the occasional hymn) with his own compositions. He also does a great job of placing instrumental songs throughout the collection…kind of like musical interludes. You know, just to mix it up.
The arrangements are pretty much what you’d expect from Sufjan at this point…definitely more along the fully orchestrated lines of Illinoise and less like the more stripped down Seven Swans, although those moments of quiet are still very much evidenced here (especially on tracks like the gorgeous, extremely lo-fi “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”). But, even though it seems predictable, most of the songs on here are anything but. His own songs range from silly and upbeat (“Get Behind Me, Santa!”) to low-key and gorgeous (“We’re Goin’ to the Country”). And his renditions of Christmas classics make them seem new and fresh when they could just as easily old and tired. Songs like “O Holy Night” have been done by countless artists (from Jessica Simpson to the crazy no-name fella who has recorded, quite possibly, the worst, and funniest, version ever heard), yet his version sounds like nothing I’d ever expect it to sound like.
I could go on and on, and pretty much say the same things over and over again. It’s tough to say much about a Christmas release, especially when there are so many out there. But I will say this…for a guy who doesn’t normally enjoy Christmas music (me), I very much love this album. Even if it was released in July, I would still listen to and love this album. I have a very short list of Christmas CDs that I enjoy, but this has definitely made the top 2 (and is possibly tied for first, but I have to give it a little more time).

Rating: 8.5 (9.8 for a Christmas album)

Essential Tracks: “We’re Goin’ to the Country”, “It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!”, “Did I Make You Cry On Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)”, “Only at Christmas Time”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel”

Favorite Tracks: “Put the Lights on the Tree”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”, “We Three Kings”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Starflyer 59 - My Island

Jason Martin is nothing if not a student of rock music, and his catalog of albums (under the name Starflyer 59) is proof of that. If you wanted to, you could listen through each of their albums and point out specific influences. In fact, without many people noticing, Starflyer has consistently been making some of the best, most original albums over the past 13 years.
My Island is no different…and, by that I mean it is, yet again, another great chapter in an already amazing history of the band. On this album, Martin’s love of underground 80s rock is in full swing. Whether it’s the driving guitars and drums of the opener, “The Frontman”, or the bass driven, groove centric “Nice Guy”, or the stomping, clap-happy, Smiths influenced closer “Ideas For the Talented”, his admiration for the “overlooked” period of the 80s is definitely the driving force behind this album.
And that’s pretty cool. While the rest of the music world is focused on crafting their around new-wavers New Order, the Pet Shop Boys, and every other band who had a massive hit on the radio between ’82 and ’90, Starflyer is intent on bringing back those who were making music during that area, but whose music rarely graced the airwaves. Martin’s influence comes from The Smiths, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, The Sundays, and many others who were largely overlooked in their day.
This album can’t necessarily be seen as a mission to bring those artists back into the forefront, but, if that were the intention, one would have no choice but to sit up and take note. Even now, as I sit here listening to this album, I’m thinking to myself, “You know, I should probably pop in The Queen is Dead a little later.”
And that’s really the beauty of Starflyer. They can wear their influences boldly on their sleeve, but it never seems ripped-off or tired…rather, it becomes an homage to those artists who came before, and gives a glimpse into what makes pop music great now. Starflyer takes a lot from their influences, but they always put their own stamp on whatever they do.
It’s getting fairly late, and this may be getting a little rambling and incoherent, so I’ll end on this:
On the final song, “Ideas For the Talented”, Martin sings, “My ideas, they outweigh all the talent I own.” If that statement holds any truth at all, I have only one thought: if this album (or any Starflyer album, for that matter) represents only a fraction of what he’s capable of…well…if his talent ever catches up with his ideas, he won’t be able to be ignored any longer.
Starflyer is one of the greatest bands of my lifetime. If you’ve yet to check them out, I urge you to do so immediately. And, if you are going to check them out, this is not a bad place to get started.

Rating: 8.6

Essential Tracks: “The Frontman”, “Nice Guy”, “Pearl of Great Price”

Favorite Tracks: “I Win”, “Ideas For the Talented”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Damien Rice - 9

3 years.
That’s how long it has been since Damien Rice last graced us with his presence. That’s when he released his debut, O, a delicate (get it?), gorgeous album that had everyone calling him the next great folk singer.
Then he took some time off.
3 years, to be exact.
And now, finally, he’s back…and what were we to expect? What had he been doing with his music all that time? Would he come back completely remade as a rock singer? Would he trade in his acoustic guitar for a Flying V? What to expect, what to expect…
Well, to be honest, he doesn’t sound too much different on his new album than he did on his first one. There’s a bit more instrumentation in this album, which seems to be a fairly popular trend among the new folkies (Iron & Wine, Ray LaMontagne, etc.). He also sounds a bit angrier here than he did on his first album, but only a time or two (never more obvious than on “Rootless Tree”…the chorus of which is the sole reason this album is explicit lyrics).
But, for the most part, the fragile Damien Rice who we had met in the first album is still in full force here. The opening song, “9 Crimes”, kicks off the album with a haunting piano and the gorgeous vocals of Lisa Hannigan, which eventually leads to a duet with Damien over an ever-building musical section of percussion and strings. We’re reminded, instantly, of the thing we all loved about him in the first place: his ability to build a song perfectly, sometimes out of nothing. With a string section and more instrumentation to work with, he borders on unstoppable. Even on “Elephant”, a song comprised mainly of a guitar and Damien’s voice, you can just feel the emotion in his voice, lifting the song to higher heights than it really has any reason to go.
And that, much like on his last album, is really what drives this album and his entire sound: his voice. He can convey emotion in such a way that it is sometimes almost painful to listen to. Fragile and breakable, yet, at the same time, huge and otherworldly. Without his voice, he becomes nothing more than your everyday, run of the mill acoustic guitar toting coffee shop playing neo-folk singer…but with better lyrics.
That’s not to say that this album is perfect. There are some songs that don’t quite work on this album. The light “Dogs” seems a bit too light, with lyrics that include, “She lives with an orange tree and a girl who does yoga,”, with “girl who does yoga” repeated more than once throughout the course of the song. The previously discussed “Rootless Tree” seems like a song that he threw in just to say, “See…I’m not just depressed about stuff. I can get mad, too. Listen to this.” Not that it’s a terrible song…in fact, it’s a fairly good song in spite of itself. But that doesn’t stop it from sounding more than a bit forced. “Coconut Skins” is an upbeat folk song that seems to be more along the line of what I’d expect from Bright Eyes.
But there are also some absolutely great moments on this album. “9 Crimes” has already been talked about, but I just have to come back to it, because it is one of the best moments on the album. I was surprised by the huge, building, rock oriented “Me, My Yoke and I”, which kind of comes off as a full-length version of the last half of “I Remember”, but only because it’s much more electric than the rest of the album. “Accidental Babies” seems like it would drag a bit, being a slow, 6 minute song made up solely of a piano and his voice, but, somehow, he pulls it off.
All in all, I think of this album much like I think of O. When it’s on, it’s on. But when it’s off, it’s off. There are enough amazing moments on the album to keep you coming back, but there are also some dead spots that you keep listening to in the hopes that they’ll get better. The good moments are amazing. The bad moments aren’t terrible, but they certainly don’t live up to the great moments. There’s not much that fits in the middle of those moments.
But, thankfully for all of us, his good moments far outweigh the bad moments. Again. Welcome back, Damien.

Rating: 8.0

Essential Tracks: “The Animals Were Gone”, “Me, My Yoke and I”

Favorite Tracks: “9 Crimes”, “Elephant”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

My Chemical Romance - The Black Parade

I would like to start off by saying how astounding it is that a band can make an album with absolutely no new ideas and no creativity of their own. A lot of bands wear their influences on their sleeve (Jet = The Who, The Darkness = Queen, etc.), but very few rip off as many bands as blatantly as My Chemical Romance does on this album.
And it’s kind of hard to get mad at them about it. After all, it’s not as though they’re trying to hide anything. You’ll see what I’m talking about as you read this.
It’s been well documented that My Chemical Romance has gone through a massive image overhaul in promoting their new CD. Their entire image is mainly tied to their lead singer, Gerard Way. Up until this point, he was always seen as the stereotypical “emo” singer, all pasty skin and shaggy hair. But, leading up to this album, he has taken on a new look, and, along with it, a new persona. He says that, when he’s performing, he is no longer Gerard Way…he is “The Patient”, the focal point of the story of this new album. His once trademark long black hair (with bangs in his face) have been traded in in favor of short, bleach blonde hair. The entire band has also started dressing entirely different, all of them now adopting black marching band style uniforms, saying that they are no longer My Chemical Romance, but, rather, they are The Black Parade. This new persona is strangely similar to what The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, although perhaps a bit more extreme.
Musically there’s not really a new idea on the entire album. We all know of rock’s love affair with the concept album. It normally has to be about something huge and epic. Usually, the band will pull out all the steps…try things they’ve never done before, all the while telling a story that may or may not be entirely clear. But, if you listen closely enough, you can normally make out the general idea…you know, kinda like reading Shakespeare. But with guitars.
Well, My Chemical Romance have definitely done their homework with this album…perhaps a little too well. Right from the start, about a minute into the first track (purposefully ironically titled “The End”) there’s a huge crashing of guitars and keyboards…you know, just like Pink Floyd did on The Wall. In fact, if it weren’t for the other obvious references to Queen (like the huge guitar riffs) and Green Day’s American Idiot (minus, you know, the half-cocked politics in order to sell records), or even the blatant T. Rex riff-stealing “Teenagers”, you could point to Pink Floyd (mainly The Wall) as the starting point for this album.
And that’s really where it suffers. I read an interview with Way, and he described how they made the album. It sounded something like, “We really laid ourselves bare and held nothing back in making this album. We tore out our insides and put ourselves back together.” One of the guitarists, when asked, on a scale of 1-10 how difficult making this album was responded, “45…this is really the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
I find that really hard to believe, and, if it is true, I feel kind of bad for the guy. So, you’re telling me that remaking The Wall (except replacing the crazy dictator guy with a guy dying of cancer) is the most challenging thing you’ve ever done in your life?
Even the vocals are Pink Floyd-esque in a number of places. From the almost cartoon background screams that make their way into a number of the songs (much like Pink Floyd would do with songs like “The Gunner’s Dream” on The Final Cut) to his Roger Waters impersonation towards the beginning of “The End” and towards the middle of “Mama” (which, although it sounds nothing like “Mother”, one can’t help but think they named it as a tribute, or some such nonsense).
The way I’m describing it makes it sound like I hate the album, and that’s not totally the case. I hate that they couldn’t come up with a single creative idea on their own. For a band “laying itself bare”, it sounds an awful lot like what a good cover band could accomplish on any given night. Is it “massive sounding”? You betcha. It sounds like it should be important, even if it doesn’t end up giving us anything new. It’s extremely well produced (as if you could expect anything less). Musically it’s a very well done album…and I don’t even hate the vocals as much as I thought I would.
It was my thought process going into it. I didn’t want to like the album. And now, as I sit here listening to it for roughly the 10th time over the past week and a half, I realize that there are parts of it that I like. It’s extremely tough to look past all the musical theft on this album though, mainly because it’s so in-your-face. There’s not a way to look past it, mostly because they didn’t care to hide it.
So maybe that gives me a reason to like it. “Yeah, we stole it. So what? That’s the music we love, and we’re going to give it the due it deserves.”
Either that or they’re just too lazy to try to cover it up.

Rating: 5.1

Fairly Good Tracks: “Dead” (even though it’s obvious that they were planning to make this the single from the get-go), “Cancer”

Favorite Track: “I Don’t Love You” (far and away the best song on the album, even though they stole the opening riff from Motel…whether they know it or not)

(I will say this, though...the cover looks pretty cool.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Beck - The Information

I’ve long been a fan of Beck. I can remember buying Odelay! when I was in high school and blasting it as I sat on the porch. I just loved that album…what with all the hip-hop beats and raspy country singing/rapping…who could resist that?
If that’s all he ever amounted to, I probably would’ve ditched him shortly after graduation. But, fortunately for all of us, he decided that it wasn’t worth being dubbed “The hip-hop Hank Williams” if that’s all he was ever known for. So, like all great artists, he evolved. And evolved. And evolved. With each new album he gave us a new sound…a new reason to love him.
I won’t give you a huge run through of his albums…perhaps that will come another time. Suffice it to say, though, that he is, without a doubt, one of the most consistently creative solo artists running around today (I’d put him around the level of Tom Waits in this respect). He doesn’t necessarily put out albums all that often, but, when he does, you can always be assured of one thing: that it will sound nothing like the last album.
I’m not quite sure if that’s 100% true with The Information or not. You can still hear hints of Guero here and there. For one, his trademark rap-singing is on full display here, after ditching it (pretty much) altogether for Sea Change. He also shows off the tight rhythm section/sampling that made Guero so much fun to listen to.
But, whereas Guero pulled a lot of its influence from Hispanic music, The Information is a bit broader in its influences…that is, it definitely keeps you on your toes. From the grooving, 70s bass line of “Elevator Music” (which kicks off the album in some serious style) to the 60s pop influence of “Think I’m in Love” to the quasi-bossa nova styling of “Cellphone’s Dead”, to the White Stripes sounding “Strange Apparition” (is that Jack White on the piano?) to the jangly, low-end heavy guitar of “Nausea” to the free-roaming, faux-folk of “New Round”, to the rap-disco of “We Dance Alone”, to…well, you get the picture. No two songs sound alike, and there’s really no song that sounds too much like anything he’s ever done up to this point.
That may sound confusing and jumbled, like he has a bunch of great ideas, but maybe they don’t belong on the same album. But the album sounds anything but jumbled and sprawling. Even though he has a lot of different ideas here, they all fit perfectly together on one album. There’s nothing jumbled or confusing about it. I honestly can’t see this album working as well as it does if even one song was missing from it. By the same token, I can’t see a single song off this album making sense on any other album he has ever done.
I hesitate to really make a grand statement about this album within the scope of his work. After all, with an artist as consistently creative as Beck, it’s a little tough to compare one album to another. How can you compare an oddball electro-rap-funk album (Midnite Vultures) with an Indian-influenced sonic-folk album (Mutations)? You can’t. It’s darn near impossible. But I will say this: this album ranks among the best albums that Beck has ever recorded. With every album he gets a little better. He is constantly coming up with new ideas, and, unlike some artists, he manages to mash all of his massive range of influences up into his music and still (somehow) make it work.
I already can’t wait for his next album.
(All of that, and I didn’t even mention the create-your-own-cover-art part of the CD, or the extra DVD containing ramshackle music videos for each and every song on the album. That’s the thing: the album itself is so good, that I don’t even have to resort to general gimmicky to try to sell anyone on it!)

Rating: 9.0

Essential Tracks: “Think I’m in Love”, “Cellphone’s Dead”, “We Dance Alone”

Favorite Tracks: “Elevator Music”, “Nausea”, “New Round”

Also, check out his AMAZING performance on SNL at (search “Beck SNL”)

And if that isn’t enough, make sure to pick up the latest issue of Paste magazine, with our boy on the cover. The story on him is extremely interesting.