I’m surprised I’ve been able to restrain myself and not write more about Sufjan Stevens on this blog. This whole damn thing could be about Sufjan, ask my roommates or family, I never shut up about him! It would probably be a hybrid of Between Hipsters and God There is Sufjan Stevens, an RSS feed of his Tumblr, and Google Maps screenshots of his apartment in Brooklyn. Kidding! I don’t know what his address is… or else I would have made a shrine to him outside of it (maybe a bust of him made out of bubblegum a la Helga Pataki).
ANYWAY, in November he released Silver & Gold, a five-disc collection of Christmas music recorded from 2007-2011. This release follows Songs for Christmas (recorded 2001-2006), so we have a full decade of Sufjan Christmases, folks! Unlike his first collection of Songs for Christmas, the latter half of the aughts got a bit, uh, kooky for Mr. Stevens. He veered in the futuristic, chaotic direction featured in 2010’s The Age of Adz. it’s interesting to listen to his work and hear how his sound has dramatically evolved, from banjo and flute to drum machines and auto-tune (seriously).
One of my favorite discs from Silver & Gold was Christmas Infinity Voyage (2008), which shows the experimental, electronic direction he was heading in Adz. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” exemplifies Stevens’ skills in refurbishing seemingly soul-less Musak tracks, turning the choral bore into an metallic, psychedelic 9 minutes of near-insanity.
One respite from the madness is “Christmas in the Room,” which features that beautiful/sad hybrid that Mr. Stevens has crafted so masterfully (see “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “To Be Alone with You,” “John Wayne Gacy”). The video contrasts with the acoustic sound through a set of vibrant abstract images set against darkness, keeping in line with the spirit of Christmas Infinity Voyage‘s futuristic feel.
I visited my family in Portland for Christmas, and as our tradition of the last few years, we had a Sufjan-themed Xmas, dancing around to Infinity Voyage and his just-released Chopped & Scrooged rap mixtape (yes, that exists). While playing around with lights I noticed the delightful blurring effects against the Portland skyline, and forced my family to go onto the freezing sixteenth floor balcony for a midnight celestial photo shoot. (There was champagne involved, it wasn’t THAT bad.)
‘You must be a Christmas tree – you light up the room.’
We had a good time playing around and seeing the unexpected results from the light patterns… hopefully we captured a bit of Sufjan’s seemingly unending exuberance.
If you care to listen to more of Sufjan’s ** HOLIDAY MAGIC ** (even though, uh, it’s January), it’s all available to listen to on his website for free. He released it on the public domain for your listening pleasure because he is just that kind of guy. SUFJ YOU’RE KILLIN’ ME!
After almost five years of hosting a non-commercial radio show, I’ve decided to hang up my headphones. This was my final show as “Duffy” on KSCU 103.3 fm.
The show’s bittersweet theme:
Melancholy, dark beauty with a playful wink. The painful edge of the sublime. Life as a series of small deaths. The wild-eyed freedom linked with the finite. Transcendence.
(Not that I take myself too seriously.)
In true college-radio form, the show touched on an abundant number of intermingling genres, careening between 60’s-influenced surfer pop (Tennis), downtempo electronic fit for a European lounge (Buraka Som Sistema), synthed-out psychedelia (BMSR), and Venezuelan acid jazz (Los Amigos Invisibles), all connected through some ethereal thread.
BEST COAST the only place – the only place Single from Best Coast’s just-released second album, slickly produced by Jon Brion… sure to be a staple at this summer’s sun-drenched, chlorine-scented BBQ’s. Bethany and Bobb, you’ve done it again!
SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE hot fun in the summertime- greatest hits
WILD NOTHING live in dreams- gemini
ANDREW BIRD near death experience experience- break it yourself This morbidity-obsessed show wouldn’t be complete without this plucky gem from A.Bird’s 2012 release, “Break it Yourself”!
SUFJAN STEVENS futile devices (shigeto remix) A subtlety bass-inflected remix of Sufjan’s Age of Adz opener.
CAN vitamin c “Hey you!”
WILD BEASTS bed of nails- smother
MULATU ASTATKE yegelle tezetu 1970’s Ethiopian latin-tinged jazz…. talk about smooth.
COYOTE TRICKSTER pass well- coy Check out this funky fresh SF band on their bandcamp!
ALABAMA SHAKES you ain’t alone- boys & girls
BEACH HOUSE lazuli- bloom New Beach House…. guess I know what I’m playing on repeat for the next year! Keep an ear out for the secret song at the end of Bloom’s closing track “Irene”…
AUTOLUX highchair – K.V.Wong’s selection
BLOUSE into black- blouse
AIR so light is her footfall (breakbot remix)
BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW twin of myself- eating us This song/ video would be cool projected on a wall during a social gathering… just a thought.
GOLD PANDA you
BONOBO kiara (cosmin trg remix)- black sands remix
OF MONTREAL lysergic bliss- satanic panic in the attic Funny how in spite of all my woes, life could appear rosy and clear
LOS AMIGOS INVISIBLES ease your mind – Gonzilla pick
SUFJAN STEVENS star of wonder
A sincere thank you to all I have encountered on this radio adventure. Five years!
Literary bands, including Destroyer, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, and Okkervil River, have gained a foothold in the modern music scene; it’s the type of tunes where songwriting prose competes with or even outshines instrumentation. It’s a listening experience where fans intently read liner notes while dropping the needle to the groove, analyzing heady lyrics for a multiplicity of meanings. Founded on the legacy of Morrissey, this new crop of singer-songwriters infuse an nerdish, academic vibe into their work that seems at odds with the supposedly scuzzy world of rock.
What makes a band ‘literary’? Is it based on clever wordplay, ‘wordiness’, or writing one’s lyrics in prose? Is it founded on obscure allusions (for example, Okkervil River takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya)? Are goofily thick prescription glasses a necessary component (a la Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, pictured to the right)?
Portland-based indie breakout The Decemberists take the literary slant to the next level, with a music video drawn from an acclaimed novel. “Calamity Song” (from 2011’s The King Is Dead) is directly inspired by David Foster Wallace’s legendary tomb Infinite Jest. Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur directed the video, which depicts Eschaton, a tennis-like game.
Interestingly enough, some rockers began their careers as writers, such as Sufjan Stevens. Stevens received his MFA in Creative Writing from the New School in 1999, and has had his work published in the UK Sunday Observer, Topic, and The Best Non-Required American Reading 2007. He wrote his 1999 debut album, A Sun Came, as a student; “Dumb I Sound” is one of my favorites of his early work, a rough, rakish but beautiful cut.
“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” from Stevens’ 2004 banjo-laden Seven Swans was inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name. Check out his KCRW performance of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:
Austin-based band Okkervil River is one band that is almost always described as literary, particularly due to their critically-acclaimed stand-out 2005 album Black Sheep Boy. Here is an excerpt of a review from Dusted:
Will Sheff’s lyrics garner acclaim for being “literary,” but simply writing one’s lyrics in prose form, as Sheff does, doesn’t quite make his songs worthy of Cliff Notes. What Sheff can do, and do very well, is nurture his images into believable symbols of greater girth, like when the grey, inert qualities of a rock become fodder for a jilted lover’s diatribe (“A Stone”) or the word real is ironically twisted into multiple, shifting meanings (“For Real”).
“I don’t want to be some fop pretending to be a half-baked poet… I’m very happy that the New York Times wrote a big piece and called us “literary,” because it’s good to have somebody say something about you, but honestly I think it’s all bullshit. My favorite groups, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Neil Young or the Shangri-Las, they don’t have anything “literary” about them. It’s like saying that comic books are good if they’re like paintings. In the end, it’s classist, you know? And all these bands that are trying to dignify themselves by coming across as literary are classist.”
I see Sheff’s point, but perhaps ‘literary’ can be considered as more of a descriptor rather than a definition. It is confining to smack a band into one particular category when there are multiple influences at play. Is there really anything detrimental in the ‘literary’ descriptor, when it seems only to augment the breadth of possible interpretations?
From a listener’s perspective, I hope that esoteric references to Russian literature and flowery language maintain their place in popular music. After all, I gotta pore over and over-analyze SOMETHING while listening to records.
I’ve noticed an unabashedly weird trend in music lately: an onslaught of interpretive dance in virally-successful videos. Interpretive dance, much like “new-age” (which I discussed in a previous post), seems an unlikely candidate to return to mainstream popularity, simply by the virtue of how BIZARRE it is. We continually hear that our pop-culture sphere is characterized by unattainable, photoshop perfect visions of the human body, so the rise of un-self-conscious movement through using one’s body as a palate for artistic expression seems most unexpected.
Thom Yorke’s frequently-spoofed dance for Lotus Flower from King of Limbs is one of the most prominent examples of the popularity of this kooky trend… the video has over 11 million views, sheesh! It is necessary to note that Radiohead’s exceptionally-devoted legion of fans would rabidly consume any new release from the deity of Thom Yorke, but it’s still interesting to consider how Yorke’s weird moves may have impacted our cultural consciousness.
The screen-shots at the top of this post are from “Bizness,” the first single from Tune-Yards’ 2011 release whokill. Merill Garbus has been bringin’ the WEIRD since her group’s inception, check out her super-low budget first video “Real Live Flesh” from Bird-Brains. The visually striking video for “Bizness,” directed by Mimi Cave, makes a link between the un-self-conscious nature of childhood with adult artistry through some seriously silly faces. Check it out:
Sufjan Stevens’s video for “Too Much,” the second single from his 2010 release Age of Adz, shows experimental dance with a surreal, space-age, mechanized feel. Stevens’ tour for Adz featured slightly clumsy, enthusiastic dance moves courtesy of Stevens and his backup singers who encouraged the audience to dance along (especially during the 25-minute-epic “Impossible Soul”). See the slightly-awkward, visually engaging just-released trailer of “musical cosmonaut Sufjan Stevens and his Astral Masters of Song and Dance” from Asthmatic Kitty. Here is “Too Much,” directed by Deborah Johnson (which was projected on a huge screen during his performance of the song, fyi.)
Similar to “Bizness,” Stevens’ video is characterized by jump shots, a flurried pace and a neon, rainbow-bright aesthetic. These vids have seen considerable viral success, and I wonder if the fast pace, unavoidably bright color-scheme has something to do with it.In our quick-clicking, short-attention internet culture, are jumpy shots and bright colors the only way to lure viewers in and keep them engaged?
And our final example comes from the NSFW-ish video for Battles’ 2011 single “Ice Cream” from their upcoming album Gloss Drop. Directed by Canada, this video gives off that seedy American Apparel vibe with plenty of shots of girls licking various objects (pinecones! ow), pretty foolproof strategy in guaranteeing viral success. The video features an interpretive dance breakdown from 1:30-2:05.
Whattya think? Do you dig interpretive dance in music vids or is it a little too out-there for your taste?
My vote: the weirder, the better!