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.
Like a Hurricane: An Interview with Year of the Fist
Year of the Fist are a much needed short in the arm of rock music. We chat to vocalist/guitarist Squeaky.
Oakland based rock n’ roll band Year of the Fist are the kind of the rock n’ roll band you can’t bring home to meet mom. Evoking the sounds made famous by labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry, Year of the Fist are “a hurricane of swirling rock n’ roll poundage”. Unrelenting and visceral, their music is the unforgiving wave in a sea of safe rock music; a sentiment best exemplified by their brand new full-length album, Revive Me. And like the title itself, Year of the Fist are a much-needed shot of energy; raw, no-frills, and urgent.
We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Squeaky, who, along with the band, have just returned from a short trek through California and Nevada to showcase their new album. We talk about the history of the band, their fantastic new record, Oakland, small-town shows, and rock n’ roll.
Congrats on the new record- reception has been positive to it (we loved it)- how do you all feel?
We are all very happy with the way the album turned out. The last year and a half working on felt like an eternity but it’s done and I am stoked.
How did the writing and recording for the record go? It sounds fantastic- did you self-produce or work with someone in the studio?
The album is self-produced and the recording was a multi-step and studio process. We were lucky to work in some amazing studios with some terrific engineers.
Do you have a favorite song from the new record? Or maybe one you all love playing live in particular?
I believe I can speak for everyone when I say “Ghosts” is one of our favorites off this album to play live. And speaking for myself, “Red Lights Flash” is another one I really like playing.
Revive Me is your third full length; what were some of the things you wanted to get done with this record- things maybe you learned from the two LPs prior?
It is actually of 2nd full length. In between the two, we released a 4 song EP. To be honest, I always have an idea in my head on how I am going to approach something and it never works that way. There is always a curveball, an emotion, a gut feeling that pulls you a different direction. So I am trying to get better at going into something with no direction to be honest ….. we’ll see how that works out.
You are based in Oakland- are you guys all from the area and how did Year of the Fist come together?
Our lead guitarist, Katie, is the only member from the Bay Area. I am from the East Coast. Our drummer, Hal, is from the Mid-West and our bassist, Serge, is from Russia. Hal & I met on tour in different bands, I believe sometime in 2006. He lived in Washington and I was in California. Hal eventually moved down to Oakland and we started YOTF in 2011. We anticipated it being a 2 piece band but after writing the first few songs we knew that wasn’t going to be the case. I knew Katie from playing shows throughout the Bay Area, so she jumped on board, then skip ahead 8 years, we found our bassist, Serge. We played with several bass players over the years but now I feel we have found our fit. Serge was one of us within minutes of meeting him.
Do you remember what your first experience with rock n’ roll was? Was it a show, something on the radio, a record, or a band?
I was raised in a rock n roll household so I don’t recall a 1st experience, my upbringing was the experience. As far as going to punk shows, I was living in Richmond, VA and I went to my first punk show at 12 or 13. I was immediately drawn to the energy. I was already playing guitar but after seeing a hundred punks packed into a tiny, sweaty club and feeding off the energy coming off the stage I knew I wanted to be the one on the stage.
What makes Oakland a good place for a rock n’ roll band? Is it the venues, the community?
Oakland has its ups and down with good punk venues to be honest. It seems we will have a ton of good rock venues for a few years and then it takes a nosedive for a few years. It’s tricky like that. Oakland is such a diverse city it keeps every band from being full of a bunch of white straight men. It’s a breath of fresh air.
And some of you pull double duty in multiple bands?
We sure do. Hal & I are in a 2 piece rock band called Cut-Rate Druggist while Katie has a solo project that goes by her name, Katie Cash, and a rock/funk band called Skip The Needle. Serge is the only smart one by not burning the candle at both ends.
You played a bunch of shows in July- across California and then to Nevada- what are some of the things you enjoy most about being able to play these songs live?
We just wrapped up that quick 4-day run and it was terrific. There is nothing like seeing people singing the words you wrote, seeing their body move to a particular part in a song that makes your body move the same way, to have someone tell you how much a song means to them. It is so therapeutic. It is the best shrink that I have ever had.
I used to live in Stockton; it was a tough place when I lived there. But it was always exciting to know bands stopped by (when they did)- how important it is to you guys to find new cities and towns to play in each tour?
Really? You lived in Stockton? What a small world!!
I really enjoy playing smaller cities/towns. The crowd isn’t as jaded as big cities. I don’t mean that as an insult, hell, I am probably one of those jaded people. Living in a big city you can see awesome local and touring bands any day of the week, it gets taken for granted. When you go to a smaller city that has 2, maybe 1 rock show a month, people appreciate that you drove 4-6 hours to get there.
What are the plans for Year of the Fist for the rest of the year and beyond?
We have some light US touring in the fall along with playing FEST in Gainesville, FL. And maybe getting some rest!
Year of the Fist’s new album Revive Me is available now via Heart On Records.
Pretty Vicious – Beauty of Youth
Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype
The perils of industry hype and stardom have been unforgiving for many young bands. The brutal nature of the rock n’ roll whirlwind is both an inescapable thrill, and the overdose that has claimed the scalp of many. Welsh rock band Pretty Vicious are no stranger to the often destructive nature of record label glory and lofty expectations. The band members were mere teens (15-17) when they signed their mega-deal with Virgin EMI in 2015. What followed was a roller coaster ride of failed recording sessions and the burden of unmet expectations that come with signing big-money deals at such a young age. But the remarkable truth is, Pretty Vicious seem to have come out of the industry slog having survived their initial foray into the fire with an album that is quite a remarkable achievement.
Initially touted as the “next Oasis”, Pretty Vicious have thankfully shunned that tag and done away with writing the next Definitely Maybe for something more visceral. Beauty of Youth is what happens when raw talent and a knack for writing great songs finds itself surviving the hype. If Beauty Of Youth is a record signaling Pretty Vicious’ convalescence after their initial break down, then please, feed this medicine to all the bands.
There is no Oasis, but rather the furious, feverish unpredictability of rock music that we had seen with early Biffy Clyro, early Idlewild, packed with the dangerous uncertainty that came with The Libertines. It’s immediate too; from the raucous riff-heavy opener “These Four Walls” to the vagabond “What Could’ve Been”, much of the album channels frenzied palettes of distortion and beautiful noise. “Force of Nature” is a little Josh Homme, while “Someone Just Like You” is what Dave Grohl sounds like when he’s trying, but the album’s best moment is perhaps the gorgeous, slow-burning “Playing With Guns”. A song that’s composed of great wistful melodies that slowly incinerate the ears with infectious songwriting that makes Beauty Of Youth sound massive while being personal at the same time.
You can’t go past songs like “Move”, with its buzzsaw guitars and wall of energy, without thinking of all the best rock bands we’ve heard over the past decade. It’s got it all- to a T- but its urgency and hectic nature make it feel all the better. “Something Worthwhile” has got the bright lights and big stages of Glastonbury written all over it. And while their 2015 stint at the festival saw them on the “Introducing…” stage, this song is headlining main stage material.
It is quite an achievement to be as accomplished as Pretty Vicious at such a young age. Even more remarkable that they’ve survived the industry machine to release such a damn good debut album. Beauty of Youth is a composed, compelling, high energy debut that answers the question, “what became of the likely lads?”. They went on to write one of, if not the best, rock records of 2019.