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   Wednesday, July 02, 2003  
'The Pernice Brothers third LP is another wonderful triumph...let us count the jewels on display.' So says the latest edition of The Big Takeover magazine. They're also forcing the pace over at reviews aggregator Metacritic with the Fountains of Wayne not far behind in their league table for the year so far. And according to all available wisdom Grandaddy maintain their fuzzy-pop standards on Sumday. reallyrather hasn't acquired any of these albums and quite possibly never will (there's three careers ruined, then!), finding it hard enough to summon up much curiosity let alone any excitement at the prospect.
For sure, superior popcraft is guaranteed; smart literate lyrics and catchy tunes-a-gogo. But surprises...? Somehow this blog feels it has 'heard' these records already. Isn't it basically more of what we know they can do? And the sound - will we be right in there, will there be room to breathe, or will it all be neatly Pro-Tooled into place? A D-I-Y, shoestring ethic isn't necessarily innately preferable but at it's best, when an acute sonic & artistic sense is being brought to bear (a la M. Ward), for this listener the results resonate all the more powerfully.

"OK then, oh doughty seeker of the unjustly obscure, have you got one for us? So have you?"

Well, as it happens, yes...

The songs and music on Greetings from Michigan by Sufjan Stevens are inspired by places and experiences in that northern US state. Knowing nothing about the area, just how close Stevens gets to summoning the spirit of the place reallyrather wouldn't know; how close he gets to providing the best music this blog has found this year is, however, 'very'. Meticulously arranged yet natural-sounding, the album is marvelously cohesive despite having been recorded 'at Steve & Jamila's house, at Sufjan's apartment, Tom's apartment, Megan's apartment, St.Paul's Episcopal Church...'. A running time of 1hr+ with several tracks busting 7mins would ordinarily ring alarm bells, but it all makes sense. Swinging between unalloyed, affecting folk-pop (matching the likes of Denison Witmer) through to impressionistic mini-opuses, this is just wonderful (and wonderfully assured) music-making.
There's a hymn-like quality to the most plaintive numbers, and an English folk tradition undercurrent. Add to this layers of vocals reminiscent of those '60s singing combos in roll-neck sweaters la-la-la-ing as if their lives depended on it; most brass instruments you can think of; glockenspiel and 'phones vibra- and xylo-, banjoes, bells, whistles, etc, etc. Sounds ghastly but it's not. Stevens, who plays and sings most of it himself (in addition to writing and producing) brings it all to heel with clarity and restraint.
The opening bars of resonating upright piano on opener Flint (For the unemployed and underpaid) nail this listener straight from the 'off'. The 'church hall' quality is reinforced by the entrance halfway of what might be a Salvation Army band, silver and sonorous. An ace. The busier All good naysayers, speak up! then bustles in, it's slightly unusual time sig and banks of male/female backing vocals setting the scene for the larger scale compositions to come. A sort of unplugged electronica, it too is ace. For the widows in paradise.. brings more layered vocals, more silver band sounds but this time dominated by..banjo (of course!). 40-love. Already you've got your $10 worth, but there's plenty, plenty more.
The Upper Peninsula revisits the kind of cool Steely Dan-like smart rock of the '70s, succeeding where Janet Bean & the Conertina Wire so dully failed earlier this year. Detroit is a mini-epic with what can only be called 'passages'. A more literal impression of that city's mechanical/manufacturing heritage featuring great guitar and vocals, it lacks (perhaps intentionally) the humanity of this blog's favourites here, a quality most acutely exemplified on the following Romulus. Rivettingly honest, the song deals (like another rr all-time favourite, Leona by Nadine) with the behaviour in life and death of an older generation. All plucking and singing handled by Stevens and so completely What We Want.
The last track, Vito's ordination song begins in a relatively straightforward pop groove (and calls to mind Broken Social Scene's Anthem for a 17-year-old girl), but the vocals gradually swell marvellously, the brass band and martial drums pile in, bells, the lot. And it works.
Points against? Well, the poetry's at times a bit opaque but crucially doesn't feel pretentious. And, er, that's it. Greetings from Michigan is a superb achievement and reallyrather hopes to get over to the 12Bar in London Tuesday night to see Sufjan Stevens and to maybe tell him just that. (You, meanwhile, should visit Asthmatic Kitty Records and lend your financial support...)

While something like Greetings from Michigan could be taken as a palette-cleansing antidote to straight up, 4/4 rock and o'roll, this blog certainly isn't seeking immunity. Especially when it comes in the irresistably crisp 'n' dirty form of the Kings of Leon. reallyrather is somewhere near the head of Amazon's queue for their debut (released Monday - 5/5 said The Guardian) and all being well will join the throng at their sell-out Astoria show Friday...

Amongst many other delights, Nina Nastasia is interviewed in new editions of UK mags Careless talk costs lives and Comes with a smile...

So the rumours were right after all. Team Nadine finally confirm that new album Strange seasons is coming out via Trampoline Records on Sept 2. They'll certainly be amongst friends musically but whether this is a good move or not is hard to judge since all that that label - founded by Pete Yorn, Rami Jaffee and Marc Dauer - has put out so far in it's year-long existence is a single compilation featuring the founders and some like-minded West Coast-based pop-rockers. More here...
   posted by SMc at 6:26 AM |