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(Above: An excerpt from Sufjan Stevens’ 25-minute saga “Impossible Souls” performed at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

It’s unlikely one will ever find a reissue of “Tales of Topographic Oceans” in the record bins at Urban Outfitters or see hipsters sporting Emerson, Lake and Palmer shirts with their skinny jeans. But on Sunday night at the Uptown Theater, indie singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens delivered a chunk of progressive rock that would have made fans of Gentle Giant and Yes proud.

The earthy folk rock of Stevens’ breakthrough albums – “Seven Swans,” “Michigan” and “Illinois” – has been replaced by electronic, adventurous rock landscapes. About an hour into his two-hour set, Stevens explained the shift saying songwriting was “no longer loyal” to him so he started playing with rudimentary sounds. 

 Sufjan Stevens shifts gears with his new “Age of Adz.”  Extended segments of noises and effects – particularly on the 25-minute journey “Impossible Soul” – made the set feel more like an art installation that a rock show at times. But whether channeling Genesis and the Flaming Lips or Paul Simon and Cat Stevens, the Uptown’s sold-out crowd hung on every note.

After tossing fans a bone with “Seven Swans,” Stevens and his 11-piece band focused exclusively on material from August’s hour-long “All Delighted People” EP and “The Age of Adz,” an album released this month. The poppy “Too Much” came with a boozy twin-trombone solo and could have been a dance hit in another dimension if not for the extended burps and warbles of guitars, organ and synthesizers in its second half.

As the band delivered its complex themes and arrangements, a large trapezoidal video screen reinforced the themes. Space opera “The Age of Adz” featured a film that looked like an animated Funkadelic album cover. Stevens later explained the number as an “explorative supernatural song about love and heartache” and added that a “broken heart doesn’t always bring the apocalypse, but it always feels like it.”Sure it’s pretentious, but it was also a lot of fun and more accessible than it sounds.

The songs felt intimate despite Steven’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. This was due in large part to his hushed, soft falsetto and intimate, yet inviting lyrics. Even the most bombastic material contained letters of encouragement, boasting self-affirming lyrics like “don’t be distracted” and “Sufjan, follow your heart.”

Several numbers were delivered with spare arrangements featuring little more than Steven’s voice and finger-picked guitar. “Heirloom” was just as delicate as its title, while “Futile Devices” was a soul-baring tribute to Stevens’ brother.  When Stevens later forgot the lyrics during the quiet “Enchanting Ghost” it only enhanced the intimacy.

Stevens prepped his crowd for “Impossible Soul,” informing them they were about to embark on an “intense, emotional, psychotherapy experiment.” The result was nowhere near as ponderous the introduction or running time implied. “Soul” is less a song than an exploration of a song idea from every conceivable angle. Melodies and themes were tackled via prog-rock, ‘80s dance and autotune before concluding with Stevens gingerly plucking his acoustic guitar. It was enough fun that the band slipped in a bit of Salt and Peppa’s “Push It” and one of the supporting singers danced around the stage spraying silly string.

The crowd’s patience with the new material was rewarded with three songs from “Illinois.” “Chicago” ended the main set and drew the biggest cheers of the night. After saying goodnight, Stevens returned alone and delivered “Concerning the UFO” on piano and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” on acoustic guitar. It was a bit creepy to hear the audience sing along with Steven’s haunting portrait of the serial killer and an odd note to end the show on.

As with the rest of the evening’s detours, no one seemed to mind. After five long years, the hero had finally returned to his fans. The path may not have been expected, but the results were just as spectacular.DM Stith: The opening act only got 20 minutes, but he had no trouble silencing the crowd. Armed only with his acoustic guitar, the singer/songwriter delivered four songs very much in mold of Stevens’ most popular work. Using several pedals and a sampler, Stith was able to recreate a percussion section and choir by building then looping a series of claps, stomps and harmony vocals. The trick may not be new, but it was still impressive. Stith’s songwriting was even better. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a full set. Several of his songs may be downloaded for free on the Website for Asthmatic Kitty, the label Stevens founded.

Sufjan Stevens Setlist: Seven Swans; Too Much; Age of Adz; Heirloom; I Walked; Futile Devices; Vesuvius; Now That I’m Older; Get Real, Get Right; Enchanting Ghost; Impossible Soul; Chicago. Encore: Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois; John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

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(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

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