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?