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Sufjan Stevens

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  • Illinoise,

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    Sufjan Stevens

    Greetings From Michigan( 2003 )
    Flint / All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace! / For The Windows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti / Say Yes! To Michigan! / The Upper Peninsula / Tahquamenon Falls / Holland / Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! / Romulus / Alanson, Crooked River / Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie / They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black / Oh God, Where Are You Now? / Redford / Vito's Ordination Song

    I don't quite know what to say here. I'm not speechless, Sufjan Stevens isn't that good in my eyes, yet. It's just this ambitious concept album about the state of Michigan ( the other states will follow ) is something that, after a few run throughs from beginning to end, has you itching to hear again. There's not that many albums I can say that for. However, such high praise from myself leaves me feeling confused. Sufjan Stevens is clearly more than the sum of his parts. An individual track if excerpted from the album wouldn't necessarily blow you away. But a combination of tracks - some featuring banjo, others atmospheric instrumentals and others pure pop? It's an interesting combination and one that shows there's a truly creative heart within. His voice isn't the most dramatic in the world, generally a fairly soft and pure folky/pop voice. The invention behind the musical arrangements generally overcomes any weakness his voice may present. Another strange thing, many tracks are two or three minutes long. Whilst many others are six, seven minutes or longer. All this is really just me saying I can fully understand people initially dismissing the album. Not so much a conclusive dismissal, as rather an 'it's ok' dismissal. 'Greetings From Michigan' is an album with plenty of sadness present within the grooves of the record, to use old speak. But there's also something else, the care behind the arrangements puts forth almost a love toward the subject matter of the songs. Little stories, the songs are stories unrelated to each other, but when framed within the whole gaining something extra.

    'They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black' sounds like an old English folk song, just from the title. It's something of a shock then to discover the initial instrumental sequence coming across all bossanova-jazzy. When the vocals arrive the song becomes slightly more normal, although the percussive bed of the track is full of speedy rhythms and interesting patterns. Female backing comes come in, helping things enormously. It's an upbeat happy sounding track, one with interweaving harmonies and plenty else going on to keep anyone interested. 'Detroit' is another favourite song of mine from the LP, all eight minutes twenty seconds of it. It starts out almost like a section of Frank Zappa music before things quieten right before the vocals come in. Electronic melodies, female harmonies - a song in several sections that can't fail in being impressive. 'For The Widows In Paradise' is a very beautiful, wait for this, banjo led ballad. 'Holland' is smooth with beautiful piano parts, slow and smooth. 'Say Yes To Michigan' an uplifting ode featuring brass, twinkling little sections and a good build up of instrumentation throughout the track. 'Tahquamenon Falls' is typical of the instrumentals, Sufjan creating something very simple, yet also beautifully atmospheric and evocative of situations and times. Like floating through space. The nine minute long 'Oh God, Where Are You Now?' has a gorgeous second half. Brass enters, Sufjan and vocalists 'la, la la', a shiver of cymbals to leave a brass band amongst a heavenly drone. I don't particularly like the first part of the song, though. Ultimately, not everything works, although I suspect each listener will pick out their own favourites. So ignore me and go ahead and get yourself a copy. It's a grower.

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    Readers Comments

    Edd eddie123zeppelin@hotmail.com
    Spot on review here. Its not an amazing album but a good one with some great songs and real moments of beauty. I agree that the second half of "Oh God Where Are You Know" is really beautiful. Sufjan really has something about him that his hard to put your finger on and he's amazingly talented. My only minor quibble is it can get a little samey at times and has one or two weaker tracks. 8.5 is about right.

    Illinoise 8 ( 2005 )
    Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland / The Black Hawk War / Come On! Feel The Illinoise / John Wayne Gacy Jr / Jacksonville / A Short Reprise / Decatur / One Last Whoo Hoo For THe Pullman / Chicago / Casimir Pulsaki Day / To The Workers Of The Rockford River Valley / The Man Of Metrolpolis Steals Our Hearts / Praire Fire That Wanders About / A Conjunction Of Drones / The Predatory Wasps / They Are Night Zombies / Let's Heart That String Part Again / In This Temply / The Seer's Tower / The Tallest Man / Riffs And Variations On A Single Note / Out Of Egypt

    I do like this mans approach to music. Simplicity sits alongside thought through expansive arrangements with proper songs joined together by brief mood scenes. Oh, by the way. The tracklisting given above, i've shortened several of Mr Stevens very long song-titles. Good titles though, that's a start, isn't it? 'Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland' is a track I can listen to all day, a two minute excersize in story-telling married to a simple and simply beautiful piano pattern. Delicate and beautiful backing vocals, soft lead vocals. 'The Predatory Wasp Of The Pallisades Is Out To Get Us' is another example of Sufjan's inspired simplicity. In this case we get a little acoustic guitar pattern and another piece of storytelling you want to listen to. This time around, the simple music backing is given a brass section makeover during certain sections and the song reaches some sort of actual conclusion, which is nice. 'Chicago' is the central song on the album, a pop-music masterstroke. Six minutes and fully arranged whilst never being over-arranged. It's catchy and sounds like it's got enough backing vocals to put Polyphonic Spree to shame. It's as happy sounding as Polyphonic Spree, too. Unlike Polyphonic Spree though, Sufjan and Illinoise covers a lot of musical ground. Different styles, different moods and feels. The linking tracks, brief snippets, in themselves contain as much if not more beauty than the 'proper' songs. Take 'The Black Hawk War', swirling melodies, 'ahhhh' vocals layered upon one another and a marching band trumpet. Works for me, especially as third song is so jumpy and bouncy and so very much 'pop' that it almost sends me giddy, it does.

    'To The Workers Of The Rockford River Valley Region' is beautiful cascading melodies, wonderful sounds. A sub-two minute instrumental that tells as much of a story as the tracks that have words, and lyrics. Still, a minor quibble remains the albums length, at 74 minutes long it struggles to maintain your interest throughout. It's an album like 'Michigan' that is a world unto itself, but one that demands concentration. Once you're into the world Sufjan Stevens is portraying, you won't want to leave, but for such simple, if beautiful music - it demands a strange amount of high attention. Ultimately, great as this music is, Sufjan has yet to distill all his talents into one masterstroke. Perhaps that's not the idea. Whatever the idea is, we'll enjoy the journey, certainly. Especially if he continues to produce moments of transcendance such as the ones that are highlights of this enjoyable album.

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    Readers Comments

    Trevor Evans-Young Demander77@aol.com
    Good review man, and right to the point. Some great highlights, especially in the first half, but can't quite maintain the interest all the way thourgh. You pretty much nailed my thoughts on it also, we can only pray he makes it through the next 48 states, eh?

    Edd eddie123zeppelin@hotmail.com
    While I agree with most of your points here: the wonderful arrangements, the simple songs and the way this album is ambitious but avoides being pretentiious. However i do feel you haven't given this album as much credit as it deserves. For me it works better than Michigan and has more just amazing moments. I don't think theres a song on here that i dislike and has about 6 or 7 candidates for song of the album (the first 5 songs, "Chicago" and "Casimir Pulsaki Day". The album just works for me. I think this is a 9.5, maybe even a 10. Probably my favourite album so far this millenium.

    this page last updated 17/06/07

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