Thursday, November 23, 2006

Songs for Christmas

Sufjan Stevens
presents Songs For Christmas
2006, Asthmatic Kitty


Sufjan Stevens is without a doubt over the top in everything he does. While some artists tend to destroy their sound and ultimately their career by attempting to over do it, Sufjan seems to have settled into his comfort zone. At this point in time, everything he touches turns to gold. The man can do no wrong.

Songs for Christmas takes us on a journey that was never intended for us. Over the past 6 years Sufjan has been giving the ultimate cheapskate Christmas gifts to his family and friends. Of all the ways to save a buck. An EP every year of holiday classics, and fresh new holiday songs written by Sufjan himself. Quite honestly, the recipients of these albums must have been sprinting to their mailboxes every day from Thanksgiving to Christmas, desperately awaiting the arrival of their much privileged package.

For them, it was a CD-R decorated in stickers...for us it's a spectacular box set. The packaging of this collection is perfect, and no detail has been overlooked. Each of the 5 albums is in their own separate sleeve, all of which are covered in appropriate holiday symbolicness. The face of each disc resembles a classic vinyl album, each with a different color in the center, and each containing the track listing. There is a page of stickers, a poster size family portrait, comic strip, and massive Songbook. The Songbook contains more pictures and illustrations, detailed song credits, lyrics and chord charts for each song. All of this is packaged in a sturdy gatefold cardboard box. You couldn't ask for more than this for you $20 could you!

And then there is the music. I was quite hesitant to think that i was going to enjoy such a large collection of Christmas music. Music like this usually has such a temporary run in our CD players. As soon as those presents are all unwrapped, and you've finished making your rounds to all of your grandparents houses on Christmas morning, the music stops...and then collects dust until Thanksgiving. However, with this collection, I really feel like there is enough substance to make me want to listen throughout the entire year.

For the most part, all of the more traditional Christmas Carols are done as very short instrumental pieces. It is without a doubt something that i find refreshing. It gives you a brief hint of a classic melody. Something that you recognize and enjoy, but certainly not something that you want to hear over and over again. Nearly half of the songs were actually written by Sufjan (17 of 42), and all range from silly to serious lyrically, but have a very Illinoisesque quality to them in their sounds. Some of them you would swear were recorded for the album Illinois, but then at the last minute Sufjan substituted the words....."we drove to New York, with my friend, in a van"...scratch that out...."we flew to The North Pole, with Santa Claus, in his Sleigh"...eureka!, it's a Christmas song!

The brilliance of this album is the selection of songs that are not as traditional in the aspect of what is expected to be found by a popular artist on a Christmas album. There are many songs that I had never heard before, or could recall, but had never obtained. Several songs are traditional Christmas Hymns, including the song "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing", which is by far my favorite on the album. Not only for the warm quality of the recording, but also for the childhood memories in church on Christmas Eve that song sparks.

Sufjan Stevens presents Songs for Chrismas is for EVERYBODY. I think it deserves a perfect rating, because in all honesty, I can't find anything I don't like about it. Nothing. Period.

So don't even think about downloading it from eMusic. Don't consider sporting a burned copy from your buddy. Drive yourself the store, and go give Santa Sufjan and Jesus your hard earned $20.

And don't forget to sing along!

The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

Brand New
The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me
2006, Interscope


Pacing, it’s kind of a dirty word used to describe the music of post rock bands and indie cinema. It’s rarely used in the same context of that other dirty word…emo. Usually, with this type of music, one expects spider-webbed guitars and sung-scream vocals, emoting about girls and graduation.

Surprise, Brand New is emo…or they use to be. Their new album is something completely different. They pretty much ditched the blitzkrieg punk of Your Favorite Weapon when they stunned us with the absurdly fine Deja Entendu. But that had “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” a firecracker of an anthem. You won’t find anything like that on The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. The closest thing to a hook doesn’t show up until near the end. It matters not.

The disc is full of forest fires. They just take a little while to get there. That and a lot of fuel, which the band pours onto the flames with gusto. Take the tense starter “Sowing Season (Yeah)” which is clean and cold at first, a bout of frostbite, until a swath of guitar severs the song at the one-minute mark. The song continues, reminiscent of The Arcade Fire in the build up and more like Cursive in the crackling moments. “Millstone” maintains the atmosphere and is likewise a nail-biter. The disc is full of these instances. Pent up energy then piss and vinegar. It’s not soothing in the least, but man is it satisfying.

It’s just too expansive to talk about each highlight because the disc is brimming with them. However, “Jesus Christ” is a nearly pitch-perfect ballad. The only slack is at the end when it seems to begin again. Why not leave us with the brilliant lyric “We all got wood and nails and we sleep inside of this machine” and the fade out? “Degausser” is shattered and slick, the best track bar friggin’ none. When the mini-choir enters, it’s like a Sufjans Stevens song hopped up and laying in the wreckage of a car. “Limousine” also a stunner, pulses and stutters until it bursts and blooms. “Welcome to Bangkok” feels like filler but is actually quite fulfilling when digested with the rest of the album. “Archers” and “Handcuffs” round out the disc nicely, “Archers” crisp and urgent, even poppy, and the string-flecked “Handcuffs” playing the quiet card again, albeit with aplomb.

Is it even necessary to mention the lyrics. Is the band really talking spiritual warfare? Probably not. Who cares? Lacey strings together some astounding lines. And in the end, the words sync with the music and, well, it’s just gripping stuff. Another vocabulary word that Brand New has learned and practices, gripping. Absolutely gripping.