Thursday, October 28, 2010

Daniel Silliman on Ambition, the Age of Adz

As you probably already know, a few weeks ago I contributed a Sufjan song to a mid-week mix, which sparked a few questions, which prompted me to write this thing.

In all honesty, I mostly responded to Tony's question about Sufjan's general appeal. I hedged around Silliman's inquiry about The Age of Adz, trying to put the album in perspective, but I didn't address his question head on.

Well, I probably should have asked why Silliman was disappointed. He has written on his disappointment with Adz over at The The Poetry Blog (<--not a typo). An excerpt:
Which is why, and I know I’ve come here the long way round, I’m disappointed with Sufjan Stevens. This album he’s released, Age of Adz, is not a bad album. It’s not. But it marks, for Stevens, an abandonment of a project that was Whitmanian in its ambition, that was, like Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick, an ambitious attempt to put a whole country into a work of art. There are not a lot of efforts on this scale, but Stevens, this indie musician who was known, at one point, for wearing wings in concert and signing surprisingly religious songs, started something with his “Fifty States Project.”
The post is titled "Trying to do something important: a couple of thoughts on ambition in a work of art," and it's definitely worth your time. While Silliman's thoughts do not diminished my ever-growing appreciation for Adz, it certainly has made me rethink my rather casual shrugging-off of the end of the Fifty States Project.

[I plan, by the way, to explain my appreciation for Adz more in depth in my 2010 albums post (is it a spoiler that Adz is going to make the cut?).]

Go read it.


I am not convinced that Sufjan is completely finished with states. I don't doubt that he never seriously intended to create fifty albums on the scale of Michigan and Illinois. The promotion may have been gimmicky, but the two albums were not. Sufjan need not pretend to have 48 more albums up his sleeve in order to tackle one more, or a few more, or a dozen more.

Sufjan seems in, or perhaps at the other end of, a rather dark period of discouragement and serious health issues. I imagine some of his cynicism over the project (and, I gather, his entire sound, really) will fade. He's not pop-music young, but he is only 35. I don't see him as someone who fades away, or stops making good music in middle age. He has, I surely hope, decades of music-making yet in him. He interrupted the project for Seven Swans, and perhaps he will resume states in future.

I think the main thing to get out of all of this is that Sufjan, like everyone else, needs to leave New York City.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last Night's Dilemma

See the Octopus Project for free or finish my German homework?

Mom and Dad will be happy to know that I finished my German homework. This morning.

PS: I will probably still write something about the Sufjan show at some point. I think. It was a little overwhelming, in good and also not-entirely-good ways.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rabbit Run by John Udike, Nicholson Baker's The Size of Thoughts, Hitler's Niece by Ron Hansen, and Batting Against Castro by Jim Shepard sit unread on my bookshelf.

Literature, I miss you. We'll talk in December, okay?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

On Sufjan

My contribution to this past week's Mid-Week Mix at the Sad Bear drew a lot of discussion, including two requests to explain why I like Sufjan Stevens in general, and why I think Adz is great too. Rather than try to do that in a few sentences or paragraphs, I wrote a rather expansive guest post explaining/considering/defending the appeal of Sufjan. It's long but to the point and not, I don't think, repetitive. Please go read it. Comment over there (or here if you'd rather). Let me know what you think. Am I wrong? Did I miss something?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Mind's Not Right

[The National + Owen Pallet @ the Rialto, Tucson 10/13/10]

Matt Berninger is pacing the middle of the stage, now to the drum set, now a halting step or two to the left, then back to the right. He's lightly pounding his knuckles together, and there's a slight grimace on his face.

Bryan Devendorf is working the drums in his distinct way, and the Dessner brothers are shredding. Scott Devendorf, the two guys on horns, and the guy on keyboard add to the melee. It's loud, and Matt seems not to know what to do. Then steps quickly to the mike stand, grabs it, and screams--just screams--"Squalor Victoria!" then he's in front of the monitors at the edge of the crowd, and he screams, "Squalor Victoria!" and then he's standing on an amp, screaming, "Squalor Victoria!" and back to the stage. You can't actually tell what he's saying, because it's more of a unintelligible screech.

It's electrifying and honestly a bit uncomfortable, this smooth-voiced man in a three-piece suit almost unhinged, and we're screaming.


A word about Owen Pallett: he rocks. A second, all-purpose fellow played percussion, guitar, and bass along with him. Owen did some drumming of his own on his violin. Through the violin mike his strumming thumbs created a surprisingly deep thump. During one song he would pull away from his main mike and shout into the violin mike. It sounded as though he were shouting at a distance yet remaining perfectly audible.


Even though the Devendorf brothers are an integral part of what the National does--even though Bryan's drumming provides the most distinctive layer of what the National does (Berninger's baritone aside), it's very clear that the Dessner brothers and Berninger are the heart of the band. There are three mike stands at the front of the stage. Everyone else recedes into the background, the Devendorfs almost relegated to "traveling band" status.

Matt Berninger is a little odd. He still seems uncomfortable when not singing (similar to Hamilton Leithauser from the Walkmen, except Berninger does more pacing). He's pretty funny too. (Matt: "It's getting kind of warm in here." Crowd: "Take off your vest! . . . take off your shirt!" Matt: "I have six nipples." ...awkward banter ensues... Aaron Dessner tries to start the next song. Matt: "I'm just kidding. I only have one nipple.")

The Dessners know they are rock stars now. Bryce was the first one to step in front of the monitors for a guitar solo, but Aaron would soon follow. These two clearly direct the show, taking their cues from each other while everyone else follows. There were moments when they seemed to be going through the rock-star motions a tad bit, but then the motions were pretty sweet. Bryce in particular is a sick guitarist.

There's this received wisdom that "The National Are Not a Good Live Band."  I was a little apprehensive beforehand, having heard this batted around for quite a while. It's not true. I think it comes from two things. First, Matt Berninger has always had a distinctive voice, but it didn't used to actually be very good. In a live setting that was likely amplified. Except that's no longer true. His voice is a weapon. Mostly his gorgeous baritone floats along, velvet. And his shouting is, as I say, jolts of electricity.

The second reason comes from expectations. People know they are going to a show by the National, and yet they expect to see Keith Richards or Wayne Coyne. It's the National, guys. Expect a lot of pretty, very grandiose songs done with intensity. Expect a handful of shredding rock songs.


I was at the show with my dad. We had lots of fun.

The National played almost exclusively tracks from High Violet and Boxer.

They opened with a lovely rendition of 'Runaway,' then dedicated the second song to Hotel Congress, where they stayed. Hotel Congress is haunted, they say, and naturally they played (an especially haunting version of) 'Anyone's Ghost.' They played only one track from the pre-Alligator years: the rocker 'Available.' Matt slid around the floor, singing and screaming. Their wildest song, 'Abel,' made the cut from Alligator, and it was indeed wild.

The set was about two hours long, and they covered most of High Violet ('England,' 'Afraid of Everyone,' 'Bloodbuzz Ohio,' 'Conversation 16') and a lot of Boxer (aforementioned 'Squalor Victoria,' 'Mistaken for Strangers' which was, of course, awesome, 'Green Gloves,' 'Slow Show,' 'Apartment Story').

'Fake Empire' was the pre-encore finale. They revved up the latter portion quite a few notches. The crowd dug it.

The encore was the best part of the show, for sure. After a quiet rendition of 'Start a War', they pounded out a blistering 'Mr. November' ("This is for John Kerry. . . we just ruined this song for half of you, didn't we?"). Blistering. And then they played 'Terrible Love.' Matt hopped into the crowd ("It's quite a company") and paced the length of the floor, from the middle, to the walls, and all four corners of the venue. Toward the end of the song he was singing right in the middle, house lights up, gazing up at the balcony. It was quite a company.

They closed with an affecting, mostly acoustic version of 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.' We sang along, and were dead quiet when not singing. The applause and shouts and whistles continued right into the house music.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mid-Week Mixes are back.

Loyal readers may recall that I was a guest contributor on #004 in the Sad Bear's Mid-Week Mixes series back in February. And if you follow the Sad Bear, which you probably should, you'll know that the mid-week mix has been mostly on hiatus since June.

Well, it's back, and I've been asked to be a regular contributor. I'm pleased, and I think this week's mix, #026, is great. Go check it out.

Anyway, I need to hop in the shower and eat dinner before seeing Owen Pallett and the National at the Rialto tonight. I'm pumped.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Note to eMusic

The reason we like you is that you sell good music for low prices. Adding a lot of bad music and raising your prices is a bad business model. iTunes already has the high-priced-lousy-music segment pretty well covered.

Mark Perkins

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Music and Friends

Dear 2006 TIME Person of the Year,

Thanks for sharing your music with me. I'm particularly pleased with the albums I've been grabbing over the last two weeks. So I, as I often do, thought about how I ran into this music, and how it wasn't, you know, my own magical musical antennae, but rather the taste of so many very cool friends.

So now I, the 2006 TIME Person of the Year, would like to share with you, the 2006 TIME Person of the Year, the music that you have shared with me recently. Clear? Good.

Of the bands I have been listening to just in the last month: Will introduced me to the Radio Dept.. Jack introduced the Walkmen. Wes intro'd AIR. Blaine - Maximum Balloon. Andrea - Breathe Owl Breathe. Dan - Stornoway and Samamidon. Donna/Julie - Sufjan Stevens. Hannah - Cat Stevens. Sean/Julie - Thad Cockrell. And then I found Deerhunter on the Interwebs, and Dan Mangan opened for the Walkmen a few weeks ago. I should clarify that many of these introductions were years ago, but they still mark my listening to those bands now.

So I've put up a playlist of (mostly new) songs by the preceding bands on YouTube.