Tag Archive | "Sufjan Stevens"

We gave an indie band a bad review…the response from one fan shocked us

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We gave an indie band a bad review…the response from one fan shocked us

Posted on 09 November 2015 by Joe

A strange thing happened last week following an album review we posted. For the first time in around six years of reviews and features we got our first piece of Twitter abuse.

We’ve had fans disagree with one of our views before. There have been people telling us our end of year best of lists are wrong to miss out a particular band or album. We’ve had bands respond sometimes with sadness about a review, but mostly with happiness for getting a mention. We’ve even been persuaded to change our minds about a review after strong lobbying from fans.

But we’ve never been sworn at and we’ve never been told to censor a review just because one of their fans disagrees with it

Here’s the particular Twitter response, from @coolguitarboy

swearyone

We were pretty surprised that our negative review for the debut album by London quintet The Leaf Library could garner such a response so we reTweeted it and copied @coolguitarboy in.

Then came something back from him  that was thankfully less sweary-pops, but nevertheless also worrying.

secondone

This response is something that we hear from time to time among indie music fans, in particular, that their beloved artists are somehow sacred because they don’t earn the mega bucks of their major label contemporaries. They believe that music reviewers and blogs should not print anything critical about them. But why not?

These bands and their labels are producing a product that they are asking consumers to buy. They then hire PR people to send them to people like us to review. If that product is not original, not interesting, perhaps just a bit bland surely it is right that reviewers give their honest opinion. Independent bands and labels are not charities. They are producing things to sell and if they sell a lot then perhaps they either run out or end up doing a deal with a major? Its business, but for the most part on a very small scale.

Of course subjectivity is also involved in a review, one fan’s “awesome must buy” is another reviewer’s “unimaginative mess”. But surely differing opinions on an album are allowed?

Surely it would be better for the likes of ‘coolguitarboy’ to tell us why an album that we have given a bad review of is so good.

Sufjan Stevens fans did this to us for our review of his Age of Adz album. They were so good at arguing their case that I went back and relistened and relistened and ended up agreeing with them. I was wrong on that one. Maybe I’m wrong about The Leaf Library.

I’ve yet to meet a label or a band that advocates such censorship and that they should be given protected status. Even Leaf Library shared our review, with a little joke too.

leaflibrary

They did this because a) they still recognise that someone has taken the time to listen to them rather than ignore them b) they are probably really nice people and c) they take reviews from small blogs like us with a pinch of salt.

The final point is the insinuation that blogs like ours are on the gravy train (admittedly a pretty rubbish one involving free CDs and gig tickets) and also don’t buy CDs or support independent music.

We spend vast sums each year on music both live and on disc. We also pay for the upkeep of this blog to promote those that do not often get reviewed. We get no money for it and give up our time to do that.

Just ask artists like John Howard, one of the most fiercely independent and talented artists around, or labels like Gare Du Nord records and their roster that includes the hugely talented Alex Highton, Rotifer, Picture Box, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge. Or ask labels like Fika Recordings, Brighton’s Bleeding Hearts or Wiaiwya, who did release The Leaf Library’s album but have also attracted favourable reviews from us in the past. All will vouch for our credentials as a blog that is extremely keen to promote good music.

But if any of the above produce something that is poor we will also give our honest opinion. We  will not lie about a product that we believe is not up to scratch.

The bands themselves don’t want to be treated like a charity case. That demeans them more than a bad review by someone who has taken time to listen to their music and give an opinion on it.

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Denison Witmer – The Ones Who Wait

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Denison Witmer – The Ones Who Wait

Posted on 18 May 2012 by Joe

I’m going to confess that despite his fifteen year career in music,  I only discovered Asthmatic Kitty artist Denison Witmer last month when his ninth and latest CD The Ones Who Wait landed on my doormat.

Listening to the album I can see why he has been the anonymous bridesmaid but never the bride for so long. He can clearly sing well, has a keen sense of melody, just the right blend of instruments and mixing and writes considered lyrics. The problem is there are a hundred thousand  quite good versions of Witmer out there. On this evidence he will continue to struggle to  walk down the aisle of fame.

Part of the problem is that he is far too similar to Josh Rouse. I like Josh Rouse, but I’m not sure I want to listen to another one, I’m quite happy with the original.

His lack of originality does not however make this a bad album. On the contrary it’s a pleasing listen. It’s just none of the tracks or lyrics have stayed with me after several listens, which for me is a key requirement of any singer songwriters’ output.

There’s a nice west coast 70s feel in places, some nice banjo (Influence) and trumpet arrangements (Every Passing Day), but with each track I’ve thought, ‘ooh, I really fancy listening to a bit of Josh Rouse now’.

I feel a  little bad for penning this review especially as Denison is clearly highly accomplished and the subject matter of much of the album, about the death of his father from cancer and his own  fatherhood are weighty and worthy subjects.

As a reviewer though I accept that I may over time change my mind about this album. I did with Asthmatic Kitty’s Sufjan Steven’s most recent album Age of Adz, which grew on me over time. I will keep coming back to this as it is by no means a bad album, it just doesn’t have that same sparkle as many other singer songwriters CDs that drop on my doormat.

6/10

by Joe Lepper

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The Great Escape 2011

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The Great Escape 2011

Posted on 18 May 2011 by Dorian

It isn’t possible to do a standard review of The Great Escape. You can only see a small fraction of the acts playing, you can’t guarantee getting in to see the acts you like best and, given the focus on new music, a lot of the acts will be totally new to you. So, I’ll try and give a flavour of the acts I did see and hopefully offer some hints and tips to anyone who is thinking of attending the event next year.

Day 1

My first act was upstairs for the start of the evening show at Komedia. The stage was sponsored by Mojo magazine and I was excited to see the evening introduced by their editor in chief Phil Alexander. This was probably only exciting to me as the majority of the crowd looked too young to have watched him in the middle of the night on Raw Power in the mid 90s. The first band of the night was Deep Sea Arcade, an Australian act with a big 60s influence. They had a nice garage sound and reminded me a little of The Coral. Their front man had a decent enough swagger but his slightly weedy vocals were one of the weaker elements of a pretty strong set.

Deep Sea Arcade

Deep Sea Arcade

On to The Corn Exchange and more Australian sounds from the much tipped Cloud control. Their sound is the epytomy of indie, sitting somewhere between The Go-Betweens and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Another decent set and despite the obvious influences they managed to sound pretty fresh. Mid-way through one of their songs they cover a section of the Butthole Surfers ‘Pepper’ and that makes me forgive any of their less inventive elements.

Back to the Komedia and, after some indecision, downstairs to the packed studio bar to see the second half of the Brasstronaut set. Brasstronaut are difficult to define, a group playing alternative pop music with jazz instruments rather than a jazz band playing pop (if that makes any sense). Whatever they are, they are pretty great on the evidence of the songs I saw and the crowd loved them. I’ll definitely check them out again if I get the opportunity.

Cloud Control

Cloud Control

Following some wandering, more indecision and a food break we ended up upstairs at the Albert public house. Setting up on stage, in front of another capacity crowd, were Dry The River. One of the hardest working bands at the event they would play four sets over the weekend and this was their second. They spent far too long setting up and tweaking the sound whilst the crowd got a bit restless, but when they did start playing it was worth it. They play what is weakly described as folk rock, and have the requisite facial hair for the job. The songs are good, the hooks memorable and you can take a look at a video clip here.

Wandering through the streets we decided to check out Gang Gang Dance at The Pavilion Theatre and see what the fuss is about for one off the more hyped bands of the festival.  Walking towards the venue we soon saw that this wasn’t going to be possible, the queues for the venue, and the neighbouring Corn Exchange (where Warpaint were playing), stretched far up the road.

Tip 1: If you want to see any of the better known acts playing at the bigger venues later in the night you need to get there early. Probably at the start of the previous band if not earlier.

Day 2

The second days events started with a move towards some of the seafront venues to check out the entertainment in a different part of town. We headed downstairs at Audio to see the “dark and twisty” electro of Christian Aids. The music seemed to veer towards a fairly bland take on Euro-pop and to be honest the only thing that could be described as dark was the venue. It was so dark that you couldn’t see anything ion the venue except a bit of the stage where a group of men were stood drinking from water bottles fronted by a female vocalist. If the music had been more engaging I might not have minded, but it was a pretty dull and not very enjoyable experience.

Heading upstairs we found a totally different sound and atmosphere, with Modern Superstitions halfway through their set. They play a pretty traditional take on rock and roll, with a good level of stomp and a confident and brash female vocalist. It made me think of the Gossip (without the self conscious coolness or histrionic vocals) with just a little bit of Suzi Quotro (and I mean that in a good way). It was a great set from what I saw, and I wish I’d been up there from the start, one of my bands to watch out for from the weekend.

Modern Superstitions

Modern Superstitions

Next saw a trip to Horatio’s on the pier, a venue better known for the sound of karaoke and the smell of chip fat than new alternative music acts. We arrived for the end of Alias’s set, a young all-girl trio from Barcelona. Not enough time to get an accurate view on the band, their amateurish but melodic perfomance was enjoyable but could grate over a full set or an album. Following on the same stage were Tribes, a much hyped Camden act that (like a lot of the younger acts I saw over the weekend) took their template from the bands of the early 1990s. The band had a lot of energy and a decent swagger, and I enjoyed their influences with Superchunk coming to mind. The downside of the set was perhaps a lack of variety, but they impressed me enough that I’d be interested to hear how they translate on record.

Josh T Pearson

Josh T Pearson

A lesson learned from day 1 I headed to the Pavilion theatre very early to make sure I got a good spot for Josh T Pearson’s evening performance. Placed front left of the stage I had no preconceptions about the next act to appear, Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou. Their sweet voices and close harmonies were lovely, and I really enjoyed the way they played. The microphone sharing brought a closeness to the performance that worked with their cheerful folk sound and I was reminded of Simon and Garfunkle in places. Trevor Moss does have an unfortunate similarity to James Blunt in his vocals, but it was a very refreshing set, watch them play here.

The act that had been looking forward to most was on the stage next, and he didn’t disappoint. A very intriguing figure, returning after a ten year absence (when his band Lift To Experience broke up) he was playing songs from his acclaimed solo album. Heavily bearded and downbeat he stood alone on the stage and his country tales were beautifully sung and played with real intent on a surprisingly noisy acoustic guitar. Between songs he was more talkative than I’d expected and told some dry jokes, which were mainly at the expense of musicians. It was a powerful and mesmerising set and a great way to end the day, see a clip of it here.

Tip 2: Pick an area of town with acts that look interesting and try them out. Walking backwards and forwards across town wastes a lot of time and finding new acts is an enjoyable part of a festival of this type.

Day 3

The Saturday was loaded with most of the better known acts and four of the bands I wanted to see most (White Denim, Yuck, Sufjan Stevens and Okkervil River) were all on at the same time. The organisers clearly have their eye on selling lucrative Saturday day tickets and spreading the bands better over the three days would greatly improve the festival.

Starting near the station in The Green Door Store our first act of the day, Hot Horizons, was another band that had a strong early 90s influence to their sound with a hint of shoegaze. The band had a good humoured and relaxed stage presence and it was an enjoyable performance. They played a tight set and the drumming in particular stood out, definitely a band with promise and one that I’ll make a point of checking out on record.

The Festival Hub

The Festival Hub

After an early and extended break for food and the FA Cup final we headed down to see what was playing at the festival hub. The late afternoon break in gigs is another of the festivals less successful elements. It is hard enough to see acts over the weekend and it seems a strange decision to stop activity for a three hour period in the afternoon. Some bands were playing during the lull on the outdoor stage at the festival hub and it seemed a good way to pass the time, but the sound was too quiet and any impact the bands would have had was lost. An outdoor stage for smaller acts and surprise sets is a great idea but it didn’t seem to quite come off in practice.

Heading back indoors took us to the studio bar at the Komedia for the 2nd time in the weekend. Irish singer-songwriter Rhob Cunningham, also of the band Our Little Secrets, took to the stage for a solo set to a busy room (one of the best things about the weekend is that I never saw a quiet gig, the crowds were good everywhere). This kind of Dylan influenced ‘one man with a guitar’ act is ten-a-penny and needs to have something to make it stand out. Luckily for Cunningham his voice is strong enough, and his songs are catchy enough, to make him stand out. I enjoyed the set a lot and you can see a clip of him here.

Rhob, like most of the acts I saw was incredibly polite and appreciative of the audience. I’ve always been a fan of acts that appreciate and respect their audience, I’ve always found the Liam Gallagher style disdain and arrogance tiresome. (And Liam really should grow out off it, it was pretty boring when he was young and starting out, now he is  nearly 40 and a millionaire it is pretty pathetic)

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens

We arrived at the Dome concert hall at the advertised time to see support act DM Stith, only for the lights to come up and reveal Sufjan Stevens and band launching into an dramatic version of ‘Seven Swans’, Sufjan himself with swan/angel wings outstretched. The disappointment of missing DM Stith was soon forgotten as we were treated to a truly epic 2 and half hours of music, lights, dancing and drama. The set was heavily taken from The Age of Adz and he was celebrating the more electronic sounds and taking the opportunity to face his fear of dancing in public for the festival crowd.

The more celebratory and expressive set meant that there were some real opportunities for light and dark shades through the evening. A big set piece would be followed by a quiet folk number and this worked perfectly and didn’t jar as it could have with a less talented and sophisticated performer. I could write about the show for pages and pages, the Lady Gaga elements of the performance (including giant glitterball costume), the lengthy between songs explanations of his challenges and motivations (including a slide-show about his muse, the outsider artist Royal Robertson) and a dozen other elements.

The performance of ‘Impossible Soul’ (almost as long as the 25 minute album version) brought the show to a close and is likely to have divided some of the audience. My friend questioned his use of auto-tune saying it brought to mind the kind of terrible pop exemplified by The Truesteppers featuring Dave Powers (sic), but he concluded that the show was 95% excellent none-the-less. Stevens returned to the stage dressed down in jeans and t-shirt for a solo piano reading of ‘Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’ which highlighted how brilliantly he could move from showbiz to intimate. The band returned to join him for an inevitable performance of ‘Chicago’, complete with balloons, before calling it a night after one of the most memorable performances I have seen in many years. Stunning stuff, you can watch a clip here.

I like to end on a high, and decided to make that the last act I’d watch of the weekend. The Great Escape is flawed and not the place to go if you want to guarantee seeing lots of your favourite acts, but I thought it was a big success and I enjoyed seeing so many packed gigs over the weekend. I’ll definitely be back next year.

Tip 3: I think it is a great idea to pay the few pounds extra to see one of the big Dome shows over the weekend. If you don’t have a particular preference avoid the Saturday night set as it is when the organisers are most likely to schedule a lot of the better known acts. (Not that I’d have missed Sufjan Stevens for any of them).

By Dorian Rogers

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Top 100 Albums (The Top 10)

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Top 100 Albums (The Top 10)

Posted on 29 March 2011 by Joe

So here it is. After two months of releasing this list in stages we’ve finally arrived at our Top 10 indie and alternative albums. Hope you enjoy this final instalment. Feel free to browse through the rest of the top 100 here and leave a comment about some of your favourites.

10. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses


This debut by The Stone Roses is an old fashioned album, full of 1960s influences. This is perhaps unsurprising given it was produced by John Leckie, whose previous efforts include two albums by XTC’s psychedelic alter egos Dukes of Stratosphear. Yet in 1989 when it was released it sounded like the most exciting and different album for years.  Decades on and it’s lost none of its energy and is arguably the best album to emerge from the so called ‘baggy’ scene of late 1980s Manchester. Highlights include the indie-dancebility of final track ‘I Am The Resurrection’, ‘Waterfall ‘and its backwards companion piece ‘Don’t Stop’, and ‘She Bangs the Drum’. In an interview with Quietus Leckie, who is the most name checked producer in our Top 100, explains that the album’s success was down to the band’s confidence and open minded approach to making music. “They seemed to have had experience, they were very well rehearsed and they wanted to try lots of things. But they weren’t frightened,” says Leckie.

9. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

After an underwhelming debut with 1995’s AM Jeff Tweedy’s post-Uncle Tupelo band have released a string of brilliant records from 1996’s Being There through to 2009’s Wilco (The Album). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the album that demonstrates all that is good about America’s best rock n roll band. Recorded with a line-up that featured the late Jay Bennett, the multi-instrumentalist who would leave the band prior to the albums release (tensions during the recording are brilliantly documented in Sam Jones’ film ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’). The album earned the band the tag of the alt-country Radiohead due to the more experimental production techniques and sounds used by producer Jim O’Rourke. The albums reputation as being challenging is more down to the record labels reaction (and refusal to release it) than it is to the songs themselves. ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ has a weird feel and an erratic beat and ‘Radio Cure’ has an uncomfortable starkness but most of the record is very accessible and features some of the bands best realised songs. ‘Kamera’, ‘War On War’, ‘I’m The Man That Loves You’ and ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ are all great catchy tunes that sit comfortably with the more cerebral tracks.

8. Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand

Bee Thousand, originally released in 1994, represented a turning point for Robert Pollard’s Guided By Voices. It was intended as the band’s swansong due to the lack of attention and money their previous five albums had garnered. The album was recorded in various basements, rather than the studio, and was primarily the work of Pollard and Tobin Sprout (with various members of the “classic line-up” pitching in). The songs were recorded in just a few takes on to simple 4-track equipment and the rough and ready sound is one of the album’s charms. Guided By Voices albums from this time are an acquired taste, with half formed song snippets sitting alongside  rough diamond pop classics like ‘I Am A Scientist’ and ‘Echos Myron’. However, this is all part of the magic formula that makes Bee Thousand so special. There are no songwriters out there like Robert Pollard, no bands like Guided By Voices and no albums like Bee Thousand – this is a pretty special record.

7. The B-52s- The B-52s


Two years after performing their first gig at a Valentine’s Day party in 1977 in their hometown of Georgia, Athens, the B-52s self titled debut hit the stores. It was a sleeper hit in 1979 reaching 59 in the US Billboard 200 but has since been widely recognised as one of the best alternative albums of all time. Blending new wave, punk, 1950’s sci-fi kitsch and Duane Eddy style guitar playing the tracks have a strange timeless feel. Above all they are fun. There’s some silly stuff like ‘Rock Lobster’, but tracks like ‘Hero Worship’ and ‘Dance This Mess Around’ are serious, emotional stuff and showcase the powerful vocal talents of singer Cindy Wilson. For more about The B-52s read our Top Ten Artists That Changed Our Lives feature here.

6. Sufjan Stevens – Illinoise

Sufjan Stevens probably regrets his claim that he would release an album for every American state, a feat that would be difficult to achieve and probably not an enjoyable or ultimately successful task. Illinois is his second and, thus far, last in the series. Nobody likes a show-off but it is hard to resent Steven’s ability to play every instrument under the sun when he produces music as wonderful as this in the process. The album covers a sprawling 22 eccentrically titled tracks ranging from the soft and sombre (‘Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois’) to the exuberant and celebratory (‘Come on! Feel the Illinoise!: Pt. 1: The World’s Columbian Exposition’). The album tells an expansive story about the people, places and history of the state and listening to the album is like being taken on an exciting road trip. The brilliant ‘Chicago’ has been used on many a soundtrack, but for me the desert island pick from the album is ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ a song so sad and beautifully played that it made it to number 1 in our Top 10 Tearjerkers chart.

5. Lemonheads – Shame About Ray

Shame About Ray from 1992 is a masterclass in making two to three minute pop songs. Across its tight-as-you-like 12 tracks (bumped to 13 on reissues to include their excellent cover of ‘Mrs Robinson’) each is perfect indie pop. An album you can listen to from start to finish can be rare thing, but an album with 12 (13) potential singles that still retains an alternative edge is worthy of a Top Ten place in anyone’s indie and alternative books. The title track is an undoubted highlight, but each has its own merit, from the hooky ‘Alison’s Starting to Happen’ to the cover of ‘Frank Mills’, from the film and stage play Hair. We’ve been listening to this a lot in preparing for this list and are staggered each time at the energy and consistency of  this fifth album from the band

4. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes

When Gordon Gano, Victor DeLorenzo and Brian Ritchie took their busking trio intro the studio to record their debut album it is unlikely that they could have realised what an iconic record they were producing. Their acoustic blend of Lou Reed, the Modern Lovers and punk crackles with youthful angst and pent up anger over the tens songs here. ‘Blister In The Sun’ must be the most shamelessly ripped off tune in advertising and bursts the album into life, and ‘Add It Up’ stands as an indie disco classic due to the stark dropping of the f-bomb early on in the track. The album has more subtle moments and album closer ‘Good Feeling’ is sad, simple and honest. The band would release more good songs throughout their career but they could never quite match up to a debut as perfect as this one. The 20th anniversary reissue is a lovely package with demos, early singles and a live concert on the second disc.

3. XTC – Drums and Wires


Following the departure of keyboardist Barry Andrews in 1978 XTC opted for guitarist and fellow Swindon resident Dave Gregory to replace him. It turned into the making of the band, transforming XTC from a quirky, tight new wave outfit to a bonafide great English rock and pop act. Drums and Wires from 1979 was the first album to feature Gregory and his 1960s influenced electric guitar style as well as a new bigger drums sound, hence the title. It also gave the band far greater chart prominence through singles such as ‘Making Plans for Nigel’ , while losing none of their creativity.  Tracks such as ‘Complicated Game’ and Roads Girdle the Globe’ are among the most inventive you will hear in this Top 100. Amazing what a band can achieve with some drums and a bunch of wires. For more about XTC read our Top Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives article here.

2. Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

Stephin Merritt originally conceived this album as being 100 Love Songs before scaling back the idea out of practicality as well as adopting the rather appropriately more salacious number of tracks. Released as triple album, each disc containing 23 songs, it was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Each track deals with a different aspect of love and relationships and the album covers a wide range of styles from piano ballads to synth-pop to jazz to noise and beyond. Merritt’s wry gay new Yorker personality could overwhelm you over so many tracks and he wisely uses a team of vocalists (two male, two female) to record a selection of the songs. This adds depth to the record but also a more universal feel; relationships are kept unclear so that as a listener you can’t tell if the protagonist is singing to another man or woman. The result is that songs like the sprightly ‘I Need A New Heart’, the downbeat ‘I Don’t Believe In The Sun’ or the vicious ‘Yeah, Oh Yeah’ can speak to anyone.

1.The Clash  – London Calling


Tommy Tomkins excellent book on London Calling sums up the album perfectly as being about ” roots, with a sense of place.” For the band the roots were not just in London, but across the globe, especially through singer Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simenon’s love of Caribbean and US culture. The range of styles on London Calling from punk to rock to blues to reggae showed The Clash to be arguably the most mature and musical act to emerge from the UK punk scene. This double album has gone on to receive widespread critical acclaim and we are delighted to add our voices to that. From the pounding bass line of the title track, heartfelt lyrics of ‘Lost in the Supermarket’ and pop savvyness of ‘Train in Vain’ London Calling still thrills us decades after its 1979 release. Read our full review of London Calling here.

Compiled by Joe Lepper and Dorian Rogers

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Sufjan Stevens Announces UK and European Dates

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Sufjan Stevens Announces UK and European Dates

Posted on 23 February 2011 by Joe

Sufjan Stevens has announced his first UK and European tour since 2006.

The tour is to promote last year’s Age of Adz, which has been his most commercially successful album to date.

The tour takes place between April and May and takes in dates at London’s Royal Festival Hall and a headline set at Brighton’s The Great Escape festival

Age of Adz reached number 7 in the US billboard charts and the Top 30 in the UK’s album charts in its first week of release. While Neonfiller initially slated the album, it soon became a grower. (Read the fuss our review caused here)

Neonfiller favourite DM Stith, who is also on Steven’s Asthmatic Kitty label, will be the support on all European dates.

Here’s the list of dates  in full

29 April: Bergen Grieghallen
30 April: Oslo Folketeateret
1 May: Copenhagen Vega

3 May: Stockholm Cirkus
5 May: Warsaw Teatr Polski
6 May: Leipzig Centratheatre
7 May: Berlin Admiralspalast
9 May: Paris Olympia
10 May: Brussels Cirque Royal
12 May: London Royal Festival Hall
13 May: London Royal Festival Hall

14 May: Brighton The Brighton Dome (presented by The Brighton Festival and The Great Escape)16 May: Gateshead The Sage17 May: Dublin Olympia
18 May: Dublin Olympia
19 May: Manchester Apollo
21 May: Eindhoven NL Muziekcentrum
22 May: Essen DE Colosseum Theatre
24 May : Ferrara, IT Teatro Comunale
26 May: Barcelona Primavera Sound
27 May: Barcelona Primavera Sound
30 May: Porto PT Coliseum
31 May: Lisbon Coliseum

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Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

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Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

Posted on 28 September 2010 by Joe

Sufjan Stevens’ latest album The Age of Adz is a radical departure from his usual softly spoken, banjo plucked albums as he takes in a range of electronics and experimental sounds.

To the pluses first and there are many. This is a major change from the likes of Illinoise and Greetings From Michigan. Both were ambitious in their structure and use of instruments, but still keenly focused on melody and with a homespun, earthy feel. Here the banjo is replaced by beeps, the guitar by clicks and whirs and the whisper by a vocoder (but that is thankfully only at the end). Change is good, artists should evolve and Stevens should be applauded for that.

Age of Adz

So many great Bob Dylan albums would never have been made if he had listened to that lad shouting “Judas” and said, “hey, man you’re right, I’m sticking to harmonicas and blowing in the wind.” Flaming Lips did the same last year with Embryonic. After three or four albums of catchy pop their experimental side, their love of prog rock was getting lost. Then came along Embryonic, a rollercoaster of rock oddity and they were a better band for it.

Another plus is that there are actually some really good songs on here. Standouts include opener ‘Futile Devices’. It’s the nearest to classic Stevens track, he whispers, the guitar plucks, but it is as if he is saying ‘this is what I used to do…now listen to this’ as the rest of the album barges its way in like Judas with a synth.

Other standouts include ‘Vesuvius’. It’s among the slower ones, piano is there but the vocals are swathed in echo and backed by drum machine. The choral element is reminiscent of the best on Michigan. It’s already one of my favourite Stevens tracks and despite the modern sound is full of old-fashioned soul.

But to to the downpoints. Too many of the other tracks lack the soul shown on ‘Vesuvius’. The experimental production, hip hop rhythms and bleeps has come at a cost to the melody in places.

Sufjan Stevens

There’s a minus in this change of direction as well. At times, like on ‘All For Myself’, the production sounds a little too much like Animal Collective, but not as good. ‘I want to be well’ is great, but not if you’ve heard Owen Pallett’s Heartland. It sounds like a straight rip off of Pallett’s use of electronica, classical music and looping.

Stevens has morphed into something that may be new for him (although my colleague reminds me that Stevens has dabbled with electronica before  on 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit) but not in music over the last few years. Animal Collective and Pallett have already been doing this for a while and now it is Stevens turn to be the follower rather than the leader. This leaves him vulnerable to criticism for his music for perhaps the first time.

Final negative mention goes to last track ‘Impossible Soul’. Starts off great, even though I had to double take at the 25 minute length. But by the 11th minute as the vocoder/auto tune device came in, Stevens lost me. I had to turn it off. I’ll revisit it later, when I can get the image of Cher out of my head.

Overall Age of Adz is a mixed bag with some stunning tracks, some weaker ones and a change of direction that is welcome but not quite there yet. Age of Adz feels like the middle ground between two parts of his career, testing out new ways of making music and new influences. Knowing his previous work and sense of adventure in making music I can (almost) confidently predict that if he can stick to this evolving route the next album will be his masterpiece. For now though we will have to wait.

Review update: Despite still having reservations about much of the album, I’ve really warmed to some other tracks, especially  ‘I Walked’. Listened to it this morning (7 Oct) walking the dog at dawn across the Somerset levels and watching some swans on the river….great music meets reality moment.

‘Vesuvius’ is still my favourite and still can’t get into ‘Impossible soul’ and the title track. A bleep too far for me. I must add though that  I’m mighty impressed by the backlash this review has received from the Sufjanette army, proving that something we can all agree on is that he makes music that provokes a response and is anything but bland….I’m sticking to my guns for most of my initial thoughts but have taken  on board our readers comments and decided to up its score from a 6 to  7. Now, how often does that happen in a review?

7/10

by Joe Lepper

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