This is a review of the new Sufjan Stevens album Illinois! You can stop right now if you want. If you’re reading this webzine, or any webzine, or if you listen to NPR or your local college station, you can rightfully assume that Stevens can do no wrong, and on his latest disc, your assumption will be entirely on the mark. Stevens is the singer songwriter equivalent of Superman, who gets both a song devoted to him, and his visage prominently featured in the cover art [editor’s note: which has since been removed due to legal issues]. The singer can throw out extraordinary turns of phrases as effortlessly as the man of steel can throw a bus 20 city blocks. Yet despite their supernatural talents both men are, at their core, relatively modest guys. Although both have their weakness, kryptonite for Superman, lack of restraint for Stevens, they are petty, easily ignorable flaws that never hamper the style with which both are able to perform heroics.
“COME ON FEEL THE ILLINOISE! [Capitalization mandatory] Part 1: The world’s Columbian Exposition, Part 2: Carl Sandburg visits me in a dream.” Not even the longest title on the album, and already we’re using multiple sentences. A track this spectacular warrants it and the metamorphosis this track undergoes at its halfway point is nearly impossible to put into words. To do it little justice, it starts out a jazz number about architecture and ends several minutes later a folk song replete with delicate string arrangement where Stevens admits “I cried myself to sleep last night,” asking himself “are you writing from the heart?” The next track is the answer to that question, and it is a resounding yes. “John Wayne Gacy, JR.” a stoic piano based number chronicles the Illinois-born serial killer, and contains a couplet destined to bring silence to any conversation. The line “Twenty seven people / even more / they were boys / with their cars / summer jobs / oh my god,” is sung in a voice teetering on a whisper, as if it were Gacy trying to calm one of his victims. The song ends with the album’s most haunting moment, its closing line where Stevens divulges, “in my best behavior, I am really just like him.” The lyrics of Illinois are what happen when the beautiful poetry of John K. Samson or Isaac Brock are stripped of their tangled metaphors and shoved into the mouth of a plainspoken man.
And the music! Although there are certainly other songwriters who have jumped from genre to genre as much as Stevens does, there are none who have done it with such energy and love. When Elliott Smith tried it, he sounded half-hearted, like he really wanted to strip back down to a solitary guitar. When Rufus Wainwright tries it as he did on the colossal failure Want Two, it sounds tacky. Perhaps it is because Stevens plays 75 percent of the instruments on the album, but the backup singers, trumpet, banjo, accordion, organ, and host of other instruments all blend together into a cacophony of percussion and melody. There is not one second when the musicianship on this album is anything less than inspired. The disco of “They are Night Zombies…” sounds just as convincing as the chug-rock of “Chicago,” which is just as enthralling as the banjo-led “Decatour.”
But you’ve heard this all before, and you’ve probably heard it with more eloquence and wit than what I have put forth. So what do I have to add to the chorus of praise? A slight voice of dissent. What, after all of this, is the flaw that I mentioned earlier, which stops this from being a great album, despite being a great collection of songs? It is too much- far too much. The closest comparison point (and the last truly extraordinary singer-songwriter album) I can think of for Illinois is Badly Drawn Boy’s epic debut The Hour of Bewilderbeast. That album, clocking in at well over an hour with 18 tracks, worked so well because it had an arc, one that goes deeper than the natural quiet-loud-quiet track progression. That album had an arc that strung through each song’s lyrics, as well as through the numerous instrumental tracks. On Illinois, each of the 22 tracks sound like they were simply thrown at random onto the album, and the constant instrumental interludes (which range from 20 second noise experiments to jazz piano solos) break down any momentum that begins to build. I have yet to listen to this album in its entirety, and I don’t know if it would benefit the music to attempt the task. Taken in small doses as a hastily assembled mix tape of extraordinary songs, the album is easily enjoyable and very rewarding (I’d suggest taking breaks after track 9, then again after track 15).
In a music scene where singer / songwriters seem to associate a smile with a failure and emotional openness with some sort of wound, it is simply revitalizing to have an adventurous, brilliant artist like Sufjan Stevens making records. Yes, Illinois is a very bloated record, and I already have made a copy of the disc without the instrumentals, but that does not mean its many adventurous, life affirming tracks are any less brilliant.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Every last time: Revisiting Gameface’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”
A glorious sound of a time gone by
Southern California’s Gameface were always a band that seemed perfect just below the cusp. Their brand of pop-tinged punk was somewhere in between the melancholy driven emo of the early 1990s to what would become of radio-friendly punk bands evolving from the Jimmy Eat Worlds of the… world.
I loved this band. It was songs like “My Star” and “When You’ve Had Enough” that captured my attention. They didn’t fit in with the punk explosion of the mid-90s and had more melodic chops than those that remained in the underground with bands like Quicksand and Texas is the Reason (the latter being the most musically similar).
To this day, I count their track “How Far Is Goodbye?” as one I can listen to on any given day and still feel the same way about it as I did years ago. It’s a glorious sound of a time gone by, and Jeff Caudill, who has been the backbone of their songwriting since the beginning, has still got the chops his ilk can only dream of. There’s a tinge of melancholy that conjures up a certain sadness, a scene in a movie where the protagonist is making their exit into the distance as the scene closes. Something about the song, the sentiment, and the lyrics that always reminds of driving away while looking at the rear view mirror.
Five years ago Gameface released a new album, Now Is What Matters, an album that perfectly encapsulated their ability to write with emotion, melody, and magnetism that only a select few seem to possess. I interviewed frontman Jeff Caudill before the album came out to chat about the band, an interview I think still holds up. Caudill has been busy since then with a lot of solo material, while the band themselves have been releasing music sporadically (mostly singles) since 2014.
While their catalog is deep, there’s one song I keep coming back to, and that’s “How Far Is Goodbye?”. Originally released on the split 10″ vinyl with Errortype: 11 in 2000, the song received an update in 2018, which you can hear below.
Gameface photo from Gameface facebook page.