Tuesday, 11 December 2007

My New Sufjan Stevens CD

2007 has been the first year in a while without a new Sufjan Stevens CD release, and it's been tough! After Avalanche and Songs for Christmas in 2006 I guess we've been spoilt.

However, trawling the internet for anything Sufjan, soon reveals a varied bag of out-takes, B-sides, orphans, one-offs, tribute songs etc. I reckon I've collected most of them by now, but I'd be deluding myself and others if I claimed they were all fantastic. Oh no, they're not all great by any means, but some of these neglected tracks are really good - too good to remain internet curiosities. They deserve better... they deserve to be enjoyed on your CD player.

So I decided to take matters into my own hands by making my own 'new' Sufjan CD. After discarding some grungy and glitchy tracks like The First Full Moon and All Delighted People, as well as some live oddities like Sufjan's own Star Spangled Banner, I'm left with a collection of acoustic bluesy numbers of surprisingly high production quality.

I'm not sure about the origins of all the tracks although most have the hallmarks of the Michigan or Seven Swans sessions. If you love The Avalanche then you won't need any further convincing about the worth of Sufjan's out-takes. If you prefer Seven Swans to the state CDs this will be right up your street.

So here's the running order of the 39 minute CD, which I've called:

Wolverine, and other cruelly neglected songs by Sufjan Stevens.

1. I Went Dancing With My Sister
2. Wolverine
3. Damascus
4. I Can't Even Lift My Head
5. Waste Of What Your Kids Won't Have
6. Opie's Funeral Song
7. Far Physician's Son
8. Borderline
9. The Lord God Bird
10. Variations On Commemorative Transfiguration And Communion At Magruder Park
11. Woman At The Well

Disclaimer: This is not an official Sufjan Stevens CD. It's not even an unofficial one. It's just my idea of a CD that could exist.

Clare and the Reasons, The Movie

J'adore Clare & the Reasons.
Pardon my French, but there's something so sophisticated and chic about this CD.

Clare hails from Martha's Vineyard, daughter of musician Geoff Muldaur, but not Maria! Following her studies at Berklee College of Music she is now resident in Brooklyn. Likewise, most of the Reasons too.

This CD, released on their own Frogstand label, is her first, although she's had exposure with other ventures previously. I only have a promotion CD so my information is sketchy, but as far as I can tell it's a six-piece, including the string section!

A paean to Pluto is first up, consoling this remote rock of its recent demotion from planet status. I don't suppose it really cares, but it got me thinking about the nature of solar system and its sparce beauty. Pizzicato strings provide the unusual backing, immediately establishing the band's baroque pop credentials. In terms of jaunty rhythms and instrumentation it brings to mind Sufjan's Come on Feel the Illinois (Part 1). Add a sprinkling of Mr Sandman and you've got the idea.

Nothing/Nowhere starts slowly with lush strings, before turning into a catchy pop tune, a duet between Clare and Sufjan Stevens. Well worth downloading.

The quality of Clare's songwriting is fully evident on Under The Water a slow paced and elegant ballad that calls to mind Rufus Wainwright, in fact that is the best comparison I can offer throughout.

Alphabet City is a gentle walk in the park, full of easygoing charm. If somebody remade Amelie in Brooklyn this would be on the soundtrack. A B C D, just you and me, sings Clare, and it's hard not to call to mind Feist's 1,2,3,4. I like my Feist CD's but Clare is jazzier and a lot more fun.

The most notable lyric is that which opens Cook For You
I like to cook for you in my underwear,
cause our kitchen points to a wall,
and I like to talk to you while I brush my teeth
because I have so much to say

the cuteness of the lyrics bely its melancholy and the gentle string-laden waltz timing calls to mind Sibelius's Vals triste. When the bedroom-style strummed guitar is added to the mix this track is exquisite.

I believe Rodi is the first single, kind of like Rickie Lee Jones Chuck E's in love, with a Stevie Wonder harmonica. It's catchy for sure, but a little repetitive.

Sorry to say that the quality drops at this point, with Sugar in My Hair and Go Back not matching the inventiveness of the previous tracks.

Van Dyke Parks contributes piano to Love Can Be A Crime, and this Billie Holiday-style torch song is the better for it.

Things perk up a little with Science Fiction Man, which has its moments particular towards the end with some Electric Light Orchestra string flourishes.

The CD ends as it began with Pluton, (French for Pluto, and sung in French) and this time with a shimmering piano in place of the strings. The tune is worthy of a second airing, particularly given its different treatment here.

Clare and the Reasons easily find a niche in the world of baroque pop, but it's hard for me to see where the rest of their fanbase will be. I fear that this seemingly easy-listening CD, could end up as coffee shop background music, and that would be an injustice to Clare and the band's talents.

Perhaps I seem critical, but the fact is there is a lot to criticise. Thankfully there is more still to enjoy, and this continues to get repeat plays on my stereo. I recommend it to baroque pop fans of particularly if you enjoy Sufjan, Rufus Wainwright, Feist etc.

For the next CD, Clare, we need something deeper and more expansive. The talent is certainly there, but is the ambition?

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Close to Paradise, by Patrick Watson (2006)

1 Close to Paradise 5:02
2 Daydreamer 4:34
3 Slip Into Your Skin 3:37
4 Giver 3:27
5 Weight of the World 4:40
6 The Storm 3:12
7 Mr. Tom 2:48
8 Luscious Life 3:09
9 Drifters 4:27
10 Man Under the Sea 3:29
11 The Great Escape 3:07
12 Sleeping Beauty 5:33
13 Bright Shiny Lights 2:34

Solo artists are more likely to be classified as baroque pop than bands. Perhaps it's because they are free to give vent to their artistic vision, without being constrained by having to keep the band's rhythm section occupied? Therefore, finding a baroque pop band is a rare pleasure. (The bassist will sometimes play the glockenspiel, whilst the drummer seems content noodling around on all kinds of percussion.)

Despite its name, Patrick Watson is a band, with a member of the name, (kinda like Manfred Mann I guess). They hail from Montreal and this is their second CD. They're a four-piece - keyboard, guitar, bass and drums - although a lot of other instruments have cameos in the mix too.

At the time of writing they seem to be busy touring, trying to build fanbase in Europe, so far with limited media exposure. I believe the CD has been relaunched in Europe for the tour.
Their sound world is somewhere between Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Tom Waits and Rufus Wainwright. The songs on the CD are varied and interesting, with keyboard and guitar augmented by strings, horns and some studio trickery. Classical influences are easy to detect, particularly Debussy, Satie and Weill, and they enhance the texture of the music considerably. (Three of the band met at music college.)

As well as being a creative songwriter Patrick Watson has a striking voice, with the tone of Nick Drake and Nina Simone.

Close to Paradise makes for a very accessible opening with its sustained slide guitar providing obvious echoes of Pink Floyd. It also establishes the strong axis of keyboard and guitar that underpins much of the music.

The Erik Satie influence first appears in Daydreamer, a disconcerting keyboard scale is mixed with what sounds like backward loop samples. A banjo adds further texture as the tune gets going.

Slip into your Skin is the collection's first ballad, a charming 3/4 tune, keyboard, bass guitar, brushed drumkit and a heap of harmonies. Soft horns add still more class.

Giver seems a little more orthodox, but closer inspection reveals clever shifts in time signatures. The bass guitar adds nice little counterpoints to the vocal line.

Tom Waits would be proud of a song like Weight of the World, with its creepy fairground vibe. Watson plays an instrumental that looks like a keyboard and sounds like an accordian. Anyone know what it's called? Strings and horns, including a tuba(?), are beautifully arranged.

A picked acoustic guitar lick provides the introduction for The Storm, but soon things get more complex, with electric guitar, girly backing singers and more backward loopy things. A great track. (My pick for a download).

Mr Tom is an instrumental, a piano-based tune in 6/8 with a clear nod to Erik Satie again. Add some Dark Side of the Moon spoken voice samples and you've got the idea.

Luscious Life is a seemingly orthodox band number, quite straightforward, although largely in 7/8 time!

A rapid arpeggio piano introduces Drifters, a uptempo and melodious song, filled with harmonies again. What I like on Drifters (as on so many of the songs here) is that there's always something happening, a new instrument, a key change, a tempo change, a strip back, and that makes for an interesting listen.

The highlight of this creative set of songs is the Beatle-esque Man Under the Sea. It shares many good attributes with previous songs, but adds a joyous epic climax. The song is a keystone of PW's live show, although the version they perform is surprisingly different. See the links below.

OK, here's the thing...had I been their record company, I'd have ended the CD right at this point, however there are three more tracks to go:

If PW are know for anything it's probably The Great Escape, a melancholic ballad featured in Grays Anatomy. It's a good song of its type, but I don't know if it sits well with the previous tracks.

Quite simply, Sleeping Beauty should have been left on the cutting room floor. It feels like it was picked up off the floor and reassembled. There are some interesting moments towards the end, but suffers from the lack of a good tune.

Bright Shining Lights is an elegiac gospel song, complete with hammond organ. A good song, but I'm not sure it belongs on this CD.

Recommended? YES, highly recommended to fans of baroque pop. An interesting and very musical CD that could dominate your music system as it has mine. See them live while they're still in smaller venues.

A cute live performance of Man Under the Sea (well worth staying with this until 3:30!)

The Great Escape

Thursday, 9 August 2007

It's a string thing!

A great article in The Times, latching on to something we on this blog already know, that the violin has a firm place in well-crafted modern pop. Many of this blogger's favourites are quickly name-checked - Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens are the first mentioned. Although hardly household names, they are certainly clear reference points for people who know about music. (I love to see Joanna and Sufjan mentioned in the same sentence!)

Rightly, the greater part of the article concerns the wondrous stage-craft of Andrew Bird.


Saturday, 23 June 2007

Rufus Wainwright at Glastonbury

No, I wasn't there, but watched it from the comfort of my living room on Friday evening. It was recorded a few hours earlier to judge from the daylight situation.
    Playing with an all-male band with 3 pieces of wind and without strings or girly voices Rufus attempted to recreate the major part of Release the Stars. I liked the band's mixture of informal stripy suits. Let's leave the jeans and T-shirts for the endless parade of Brit boy guitar bands on the main stage!
    Rufus usually makes a good fist of performing live anything he has recorded, however baroque or concert-unfriendly some pieces might seem. Release the Stars, the song, comes off pretty well as the opener, although his voice doesn't carry well in the mix. The band are up to the job.
    Rules and Regulations is introduced as his next single. Festival-friendly.
    The Art Teacher proves a crowd pleaser, and given that this only exists in live form (on Want Two), he manages a faithful rendition!
    Between My Legs has concert staple written all over it. Rufus's voice struggles with the low notes of the first verse, but the upbeat second tune bails him out. This songs has the secondary interest of who will do the voice-over. This time it was his sister Martha reading from the obligatory piece of scrappy paper. (Is that the same bit of paper they've all used? They really should get it laminated before it falls apart!) Rufus promised Martha would be back, but sadly the BBC decided to continue with their slavish devotion of Arcade Fire, so if she did come back I didn't get to see it.
    The dreary Going to A Town got a faithful rendition, just in case any visiting Americans weren't pissed off enough with the brooches and black stripes of the stage's backdrop.
    Slideshow comes across well, although I struggled with Rufus's exhortation to imagine he is Heart's Ann Wilson playing a festival in 1977.
    Do I Disappoint You was a unlikely inclusion, and afterwards Rufus called it surreal. I'd call it foolhardy.
    Sanssouci was played far too slowly. Not really a crowd pleaser.
    The (TV) set finished with the rousing 14th Street.
    Were you there? Got a picture I could post?

Monday, 18 June 2007

And the next state on Sufjan's musical tour is....

Discovering the identity of the next state to receive the Sufjan musical treatment preoccupies not just of Sufjanites (like this blogger) but increasingly of the music press in general. So when rumours surfaced of 'Oregon' (often touted as a most-likely next state), Pitchfork were keen to get the details:

Pitchfork's Oregon news

As for Sufjan's current activities, I suspect he's consumed with matters closer to home, namely the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which will premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival in November 2007. As well as the multi-media BQE piece orchestrations of old songs plus some other new items are promised!

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Release the Stars, by Rufus Wainwright

1 Do I Disappoint You 4:40
2 Going to a Town 4:06
3 Tiergarten 3:26
4 Nobody's Off the Hook 4:27
5 Between My Legs 4:26
6 Rules and Regulations 4:05
7 I'm Not Ready to Love 5:51
8 Slideshow 6:21
9 Tulsa 2:19
10 Leaving for Paris No.2 4:52
11 Sanssouci 5:16
12 Release the Stars 5:20

My Review of Release the Stars

Absence doesn't always make the heart grow fonder, particularly while waiting several years for Rufus to release a CD while he'd rather be prancing around with his Judy Garland tribute. Let's face it, his previous 2004 Want Two hardly left his reputation on a high point. Despite some audacious baroque pop highlights, it felt like warmed-up leftovers from Want One.
    Insider gossips, leading up to the release of this CD said that Release the Stars was sounding 'fabulous', but to me the 'Going To A Town' leak on YouTube sounded handsome and yet mundane. Should I even buy the CD? I wondered at one point, however with a holiday imminent I was looking for new music so my MP3 was well stocked for the travels, and this just had to be one of them.
    My first impression was that sonically this is as beautifully produced and performed as any record you'll hear... just listen to the quality of the strings and horns, mostly arranged by Maestro Rufus himself. Despite the musical bombast of Do I Disappoint You, the opener, I must respond with yes it does a little. I'm not convinced by the lyrics, and it's hardly Rufus's most elegant melody.
    'Going to a Town' improves with a few listens, but it still strikes me as formulaic until a free ranging chord sequence in the latter part.
    Things perk up with 'Tiergarten' a lugubrious summer pop song, with a rhythm that seemed perfectly suited to my first listens to it on long distance trains in Poland and Ukraine. Could this be a hit? No doubt it will be in Berlin. Has a park ever had a better song written about it? Let me know!
    'Nobody's Off The Hook' proclaims Rufus on the fourth track, backed by an exquisite string quartet. The tune is good, Rufus's singing is good, but the title reminds me of Big Brother a couple of years back.
    Next up is the trademark Rufus that people love and hate in equal measure. 'Between My Legs' commences with the kind of verse that any old pop group could write, a simple repetitive melody set square over its rhythm. And then it reaches its second theme and Rufus leaves the aforementioned pop group trailing in his wake as the song takes off with a change of pace and a vibrant tune. The grand chorus that follows is excellent with Rufus's vocals soaring against a huge and exciting backing, which then repeats with Sian Phillips speaking the words as if its something out of King Lear. Seemingly there's nowhere to go after that, but the signature chromatic tune of Phantom of The Opera seems so appropriate. This song is great fun, there's no denying it.
     Coming after such musical high jinks, the mid-tempo pop of 'Rules and Regulations' seems low key, but taking it in isolation, it's one of the CD's highlights. Nice lyrics, and a great trumpet duet sequence in the breaks.
     'Not Ready For Love' is the slowest song in this collection, and finds Rufus singing in his upper register (a la David Gates of Bread). One of the good things about Want One was that the slower ballads were also the shorter songs, whereas at nearly six minutes this one drags.
    Not to worry, normal bombast is resumed in 'Slideshow'. The strummed opening verse and high-drama chorus calls to mind the searing 'Go or Go Ahead' but the subject is rather lighter here, enlivened by the esteemed Richard Thompson's guitar noodling. The opening lyric is simple but highly effective:
Do I love you
Because you treat me so indifferently?
Or is it the medication?
Or is it me?

    One of the most talked-about tracks 'Tulsa', with its eyebrow raising lyrics and Eleanor Rigby style backing, is ultimately a shallow throwaway. Seeking to make a point about another performer is indulgent even by Rufus and baroque pop standards!
    I've found the previous Rufus albums to be front-loaded as far as good songs go, but this time the album ends with the strongest sequence, starting with 'Leaving for Paris No. 2' (no, I don't recall the first one either!). Vocal backing aside, it's the most stripped-back song in this collection, just Rufus on piano and Jeff Hill on bass (the upright type). This is one of the disk's musical highlights for me, the piano chords shift between keys to great effect, and Jeff Hill's multi-tracked bass adding great atmosphere. The song finishes with a long 'goodbye!' that recalls the Sound of Music (the one where the kids are on the stairs.) A little gem, and if Rufus ever delivers the basic album he's long promised, this points to something very fine indeed.
    Rufus has a real talent for elegant mid-tempo pop, which is amply demonstrated on 'Sanssouci'. I like the way the melody shifts and progresses in each successive line. With such a strong and infectious tune, the backing of fluttering flutes is superfluous, and yet delightful.
    Finally we get a slice of big band bombast with the title track 'Release The Stars'. With its raunchy rhythm, blowsy trumpets and choir of female backing vocals this is a turn-up-the-stereo blast. A fitting finale!
    ...except of course for the dreaded bonus tracks. My copy features a voiceless Do I Disappoint You, but other buyers appear to have different songs. Based on my experience of the bonus tracks which litter RW's back catalog I don't expect I'm missing anything.
    And what of the artwork? It's exceptionally poor. Someone should tell Rufus that lederhosen isn't a great look. I'd rather have the lyrics printed at a readable size in place of the surfeit of lederhosen and gnome pics.
    This is a good CD, not a great one. The unloveable Do I Disappoint You, the dragging Not Ready For Love and the throwaway Tulsa, together with some unappealing lyrics elsewhere, are more than enough to bring the rating down. If you're looking for Rufus's first truly classic CD, you'll have to wait a while longer. But, with its grand, stimulating music and clever tunes, I still recommend this as an essential baroque pop purchase.


Observer Music Monthly