Friday, November 04, 2005

Schoolhouse Rock

Hello, back again after not posting for a while...and only to pass along a review I did of a recent concert by Sufjan Stevens here in Brussels. I wrote it for The Bulletin, a local expat magazine, but I'm posting my original version, which includes a few lines they cut for space. The nerve...

Sufjan Stevens
Ancienne Belgique
25 October

My “isn’t this precious” alarm goes off early, just as indie darling Sufjan Stevens and his band, the Illinoisemakers, appear on stage wearing matching University of Illinois cheerleader outfits and brandishing pompons.

Yes, Stevens has titled his most recent CD “Come on Feel the Illinoise”, a tone-poem tribute to the Land of Lincoln, and promises it is the second in a series of paeans to all 50 US states (his previous album saluted his home state of Michigan). As if to address questions about whether he’s seriously going to produce 48 more albums to complete this project, he starts the show with a geographic tour of the US. “It’s part of the act, the 50 states, pack up your bags, it’s never too late,” he sings, managing to mention each of the states in an introductory jingle.

In between songs, the Illinoisemakers stand at parade rest, arms folded behind backs, and listen reverently as Stevens, affecting a village-idiot-savant persona, shyly explains how his next tune is about a wasp that scared him in the Palisades State Park and this reminded him of something existential. Then they give the cheerleader exhortation, “Ready? OK!” and away they go.

Their matching costumes, irritating musical-chairs multi-instrumentalism (is it really necessary for all seven band members to take turns demonstrating they can play the piano?) and pitch-perfect enthusiasm are more suited to a college production of “Godspell” than a rock club date. But this is Irony, so perhaps that, not Illinois, is what the ‘I’ on their sweaters stands for. The Flemish hipster audience eats it all up.

As for Stevens himself, there’s no denying he’s an intriguing fellow with a talent for intricate composition and sly self-promotion. He too plays an awful lot of instruments, including the banjo, which is one we should hear more of in popular music. And it’s a fine ambition to want to chronicle the American Midwest by investigating its history, its landscape, and its people in popular song (even if Springsteen sort of did it already with “Nebraska”).

At their best, Stevens’s state sketches evoke Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” in their ability to make the mundane seem hauntingly complex. But mostly they try too hard to be Folk Art. The song titles reek of cleverness. Example: “The Black Hawk War, Or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, Or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Gonna Have To Leave Now, Or…[it keeps going, actually].”

It is when he stops being so clever that Stevens manages to shine. The refreshingly simple “Jacksonville”, for instance, is a standout, even though (or perhaps because) it rhymes “colored preacher” with “nice to meet you.”

It’s always promising when someone’s music cannot be described in three words or less or by comparing it to someone else. I’m still not sure what kind of music Stevens -- with his campus theatrics, his Charlie Brown-theme piano, and his faux naïf sing-song whisper – is making. But I suppose it’s good someone’s making it.

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