Song of the Day: Sufjan Stevens – “From The Mouth Of Gabriel”

 Sufjan Stevens – “From The Mouth Of Gabriel” by ModernMysteryBlog

Sufjan Stevens @ The Orpheum Theater, Boston – November 11, 2010

Opening the Thursday-night show among the ornaments and frescos of the historic Orpheum Theatre was DM Stith, who released his first album Heavy Ghost on Asthmatic Kitty in 2009, and who later on in the night played upright piano in Sufjan’s orchestra.

Using only an acoustic guitar and a few pedals—including the all-important looping pedal—Stith rocked back and forth in his chair crooning and layering plaintive vocals over improvised mic-tapping percussion and heavy strumming to create a surprisingly commanding cloud of sound. The sight of him playing under single spotlight in the darkened theater made it all the more affecting.

Watching him perform reminded me of Shara Worden (aka the force behind My Brightest Diamond) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent), who’ve both toured with Stevens and gone on to launch successful solo careers. Given access to a band like Stevens’ or Worden’s, I’m sure Stith could do great things headlining his own tour.

After a short half-hour of set up, during which a crew of camera men prepped for filming (tour DVD?), the Age of Adz band trickled onto the stage. Horn players, pianists, guitarists and back up singers preceded Sufjan as he quietly strode in and counted off the first song.

As “Seven Swans” came into focus, the dimness of the auditorium was lit quietly by star formations that curved and twisted into living constellations on the large, trapezoidal screen behind the band. On a semi-transparent screen in front of the band, projections of snow slowly brightened to accompany the wandering stars behind. By the song’s first crescendo, the band was fully enveloped in lights and sound.

Illuminated visuals, costume changes and synchronized dancing continued throughout the night, helping transport the audience from the inside of a fiery volcano for “Vesuvius,” to a futuristic space landscape filled with white and purple spirograph formations for what Stevens called his “slow jam” (“I Walked”). All of this, interspersed with acoustic songs like “Enchanting Ghost,” made for a show that was varied, well paced and fresh for a full two and a half hours.

The only part that I can honestly say dragged a bit was the latter half of the 30-minute “Impossible Soul” jam. (I liked the auto-tune part, but didn’t care much for the hip-hop/vocoder part.)

The simple green, orange and pink highlighter-like stripes the band wore were a lot of fun. Small touches like these added to the sensory medley, and helped articulate the musician’s skeletal movements while they danced to songs like “Get Real Get Right”—a feel good “reality check” dedicated to artist Royal Robertson, who’s art was animated on the trapezoidal screen throughout the night.

Leading into the song, Stevens set aside a few moments from the musical marathon to formally introduce the audience to this unanticipated spirit guide. With the aid of a small slide show (yes, you read that right), he narrated the tale of his recent identity crisis, wherein soon after releasing The Avalanche he rejected traditional instruments and journeyed into electronic music, where he said he nearly got lost among sonic landscapes.

During this phase, a friend introduced him to Royal Robertson’s art and his unique story: the story of a gifted painter who was overwhelmed by mental illness in his later years, whose life came to an end in the grips of artistic madness. Studying the artist’s work, Sufjan said he was both inspired by and heedful of the story and the lesson it offered. He credited and thanked Robertson for helping him find his way back to an artistic center, where electronic music would eventually come to harmonize with instruments like his trusty banjo for The Age of Adz.

The set as a whole was again made all the better by stories and commentaries like these.

Like the best truly performance-minded artists, Stevens is well aware of how to present and contextualize his music, as well as the identity that gave rise to it. Like many of the great musical stylists, from Bowie to Byrne, Sufjan has a talent for creating sequence and narrative through song, story and show, which allows him to successfully harmonize and manifest his multiple personalities on a single stage in a single set.

Somewhere near the beginning of the show he said, “I know this is all a little mixed up,” pointing around the stage. Laughing with the audience, he declared, “It’s a little orchestral, a little folk, a little rock, sort of 80s and sort of in the future…but it’s all me. Don’t worry though, I’m in therapy and I’m working it out.”

Though the setlist was mostly filled with new material, the crowd was more than happy to stand for the uplifting finale—which was of course “Chicago,” accompanied by a couple hundred balloons.

The encore was also filled with satisfying Illinoise classics. “Concerning the UFO Sighting…,” “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” closed the show. I think many audience members were surprised by the bold choice of final finale, but, despite being one of Sufjan’s simplest songs, it still remains one of his most nuanced and powerful.

NYC’s Weekly Show Roundup!

Sufjan Stevens @ Beacon Theatre

DJ Shadow @ Irving Plaza

Fiction Plane, The Globes @ Mercury Lounge (Early Show)

Oh Land @ Mercury Lounge (Late Show)

Mumford & Sons, Cadillac Sky, King Charles @ Terminal 5

Jonsi (and Kjartan of Sigur Ros), Alex Somers (of Riceboy Sleeps), Hilliard Ensemble, Latvian National Choir, Wordless Music Orchestra
@ The Church of  St. Paul the Apostle

The Joy Formidable, Group Love, The Dig @ Bowery  Ballroom

Oceanographer, Minor Stars, Leslie Sisson (of Wooden Birds) @ Bruar Falls

Spindrift, Dinowalrus, Runaway Sons @ The Knitting Factory

Kings of Leon @ Madison Square Garden

Glasser, ARP @ Music Hall of Williamsburg

Mumford & Sons, Cadillac Sky, King Charles @ Terminal 5

The Big Sleep, Chappo, ArpLine, Red Wire Black Wire @ Glasslands

Ben Kweller @ Maxwell’s

Darwin Deez, BELL, King Charles, Friends @ Mercury Lounge

Electric Tickle Machine, Mirror Mirror, Hooray for Earth, Mon Khmer, Autre Ne Veut @ Pianos

La Roux @ Terminal 5

Thao Nguyen @ The Bell House

Deleted Scenes, Modern Skirts @ The Rock Shop

Tame Impala, Stardeath And White Dwarfs, Kuroma @ Bowery Ballroom

I’m Turning Into, Whale Belly, The House Floor, Mala Strana @ Bruar Falls

Electric Tickle Machine, Web Dating, Pet Ghost Project @ Death By Audio

CFCF, Teebs, Hercules and Love Affair (DJ Set) @ Glasslands

Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur Feathers @ Mercury Lounge

Simian Mobile Disco (DJ Set), JDH & Dave P @ Santos Party House

Ben Folds, Lady Danville @ The Wellmont Theatre

Hess Is More, Sky White Tiger, Jessica 6 @ Union Pool

The Morning Benders, Twin Sister, Cults @ Webster Hall

The Beets, Total Slacker, The Babies, Eternal Summers, Night Manager @ 285 Kent Avenue

Tame Impala, Stardeath And White Dwarfs, Kuroma @ Bowery Ballroom

Light Pollution, Acrylics, Blood Orange, Unsolved Mysteries @ Glasslands

Cornershop @ Irving Plaza

Bear in Heaven, Twin Shadow, Sun Airway @ Music Hall of Williamsburg

Kate Nash, Peggy Sue @ Terminal 5

ArpLine, Motive, Machu Pichu, Little Racer @ The Studio at Webster Hall



NYC’s Weekend Show Roundup!

Lindstrom, JDH & Dave P @ (le) poisson rouge

Horse Feathers, Anais Mitchell, The Loom @ Bowery Ballroom

Maserati, Psychic Paramount, Steve Moore @ Brooklyn Bowl (Early Show)

Punches, Midnight Magic @ Brooklyn Bowl (Late Show)

Tunng, Motel Motel, Fance In The Foles @ Bruar Falls

Dinosaur Feathers, Living Rooms, Air for Ants, Phil and the Osophers @ Cameo Gallery

The Coathangers, The So-So Glos, Ex-Humans, Unholy 2 @ Death By Audio

The Posies, Brendan Benson, Aqueduct @ Highline Ballroom

Obits, Bottomless Pit, Black Helicopter @ Knitting Factory

Azure Ray, Tim Fite, James Husband @ Mercury Lounge (Early Show)

Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band @ Mercury Lounge (Late Show)

Man… Or Astroman?, Dexter Romweber Duo, Nightmare Waterfall @ Music Hall of Williamsburg

Magic Kids, Bosco Delrey, Fergus & Geronimo, Sweet Bulbs, Phone Tag @ Silent Barn

The 1900’s, Robbers on High Street @ The Rock Shop

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Os Mutantes @ Webster Hall

The Books @ Zankel Hall

Sufjan Stevens @ The Beacon Theater

Grinderman @ Best Buy Theater

Crystal Stilts, The Beets @ Brooklyn Bowl

Suuns, BELL, Emil & Friends, New Moods @ Glasslands

Azure Ray, Tim Fite @ Knitting Factory

Youth Brigade @ Mercury Lounge


Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens can make anything sound beautiful.  Even a song that sounds like it came straight from a Gameboy, which he skillfully demonstrates in his most recent album, Age of Adz.  It opens with the typical Sufjan sound that we all know and love.  “Futile Devices” is hushed vocals and delicate guitar strumming, interrupted by cheerful plucking.  However, any resemblance of another Seven Swans album quickly disappears as soon as the first beat from the next track hits.  Burbling synths and subtly erratic beats in “Too Much” ease the album in a new direction.  And despite the warped trombones and weird synths, “Too Much” preserves the simple beauty that Stevens manages to create in every track.
After “Too Much” the “easing” into a new direction ends abruptly, and the album quickly takes off with agressive immediacy.  Title track, “Age of Adz,” is sudden and loud, with industrial beats and ominous choruses of “oooohhhs” and “ahhhhhs.”  As the song begins, one might imagine standing in a fiery factory, surrounded by angry builders in welders masks.  But when Stevens comes in, his voice leaves behind the fiery depths and guides the song to a better, lighter place, assuring that “this is the age of adz/eternal living” (whatever that means).  Like most tracks on the album, this song is a true hybrid–fluttering synths alongside a frenzy of stringed instruments and electronic blips blending with majestic horns.  But unless you pay very close attention, the contrast of musical styles goes unnoticed and the sounds fit effortlessly together.
Other notable tracks are “Bad Communication” and “All for Myself,” both a little slow and sad.  I wouldn’t call them “downers,” but they certainly evoke feelings of longing and heartbreak.  But beautiful heartbreak.  “Bad Communication” is a subdued, desperate plea to a loved one and “All to Myself” is a gentle, reflective monologue driven by strong lyrics and a passionate, swelling chorus.
From electronic beats reminiscent of Enjoy Your Rabbit to folksy guitars and a full-fledged orchestra, Age of Adz has obvious range.  It’s a melting pot of various sounds and styles.  Like Enjoy Your Rabbit met Seven Swans, had a quick encounter with Beck, used the “f” word a few times, and created the score for a musical starring Royal Robertson (the shizophrenic artist whose work is referred to by the album title).  And then turned it into the soundtrack for a Nintendo game.  And as crazy as it all sounds, it’s actually not that crazy at all.  Stevens takes contrasting and somtimes difficult sounds and makes it all fit together in a beautiful, cohesive song.  Which is even more admirable when you place that into the context of a 25-minute closing track.  “Impossible Soul” is 25-and-a-half minutes of musical mayhem.  Yet, that half hour consists of well-structured melodies and strong phrasing that thread the song together and turn something that one might hope to be “endurable,” into something that is remarkably enjoyable. 

While Age of Adz might be seen as going in a “new” direction for Stevens, it is, in fact, a culmination of “old directions.”  Stevens has gathered his experiences from previous works to create an evolved–but somewhat familiar–collection of strange and beautiful songs.