Album Review: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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In Sufjan Stevens’ seventh solo studio album to date, he takes a somewhat darker route, highlighting the themes of sorrow and despair as well as the tumultuous relationship with his now late mother. Now, to be completely honest with you all (and I feel like I must at this point), I do not have much experience with Sufjan Stevens’ music, but with the upcoming release of Carrie & Lowell, I feel like I have to start from somewhere. Over the past few weeks the banjo/guitar carrying singer songwriter has captured my heart and learning about what makes him and his music tick was really fascinating. So, even though I might not have the discography memorized, I feel like I can still do a review of this highly evocative album.

We all wear our sorrows differently, and have different ways of showing it. Some suppress, some conceal, and some wear it on their sleeve. With respect to Stevens, wearing it on your sleeve is sometimes highly encouraged, and even appreciated. It’s already known that he’s an incredibly talented writer, and the way it’s arranged on this upcoming album with the music is breathtakingly beautiful, despite the fact that it comes face to face with the reality of loss. The majority of the album is about Stevens’ mother, who passed away in 2012, and the problems he faced as a result of her abandoning her family and only rarely showing up in their lives riddled with traces of abuse. As a result, the songs are done in a similar way – they’re extremely personal and painfully heart-wrenching, with most of the emphasis placed on soft, delicate piano and muted guitar. “Fourth of July” is perhaps the best example of this new aesthetic, where Stevens’ has a heartfelt discussion with his mother supposedly on her deathbed, where he calls her his “firefly” and repeats incredibly profound things that one doesn’t think about or even want to think about, namely, the subject of death. Despite the feeling of sadness it brings, he follows it up with “The Only Thing,” where he lists his reason for wanting to stay in this beautiful world: nature. Moreover, it’s the overall feeling of melancholia which almost gives an image of hope in tracks like  “Death With Dignity” and “Should Have Known Better” that I enjoy the most, because here, Stevens’ voice is in this hushed tone and an even more gentle falsetto that conveys emotion so perfectly. There are times where the music and style it’s played in repeats itself in the second half, but overall, the message the album as a whole conveys is absolutely beautiful.

References to his mother’s abandonment in a video store when he was a toddler and more recent events in Stevens’ life this show up explicitly in the absolutely gorgeous song “Should Have Known Better,” where the guitar and vocals are perhaps the most challenging to convey in the way he desires, but is done flawlessly. I enjoyed it the most because unlike the other tracks on the album, this one doesn’t have a set emotion from beginning to end. It starts out in a muted haze of meticulous guitar plucking that’s both regretful and dismal, with references to a “black shroud” – most likely a metaphor for his own depression – and the fact that he is a constant hostage to his never ending feelings. Then, around the half-way point, the mood changes considerably with the introduction of a playful electric keyboard melody, and his tone grows hopeful, singing “the past is still the past” and he wants to move on. He sings about his niece and how he sees his mother’s face in her, and says that it’s simple things like this that place beauty in the world and make it easier to face your inevitable sorrows and fears. Carrie & Lowell could be represented with this song, I feel, because it addresses all the themes Stevens’ intended – the most evocative being the feeling of utter loss and both the beauty and ugliness of love. Sufjan Stevens has gained a new fan in me, and after listening to this album, it’s clear what Stevens’ wants us to know. Love is really all you need.

Carrie & Lowell will be released on March 30th.

More music videos will be posted here when they are released.

9.0/10

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photo by Emmanuel Afolabi

Gengahr – “She’s A Witch”

British indie rockers Genghar list artists like Modest Mouse and The Smiths as their influences, and their attempt to create a timeless sound seems to be as a result of those influences. Their new single “She’s A Witch” is beautifully melodic and sung in an impressive falsetto that’s easily envied. With such a lighthearted, sun-kissed song, it’s easy to fall victim to it’s lovely charms, and proves that Gengahr is a gem just waiting to be further uncovered.

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Lower Dens – “Ondine”

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Baltimore indie band Lower Dens specializes in producing highly textured, atmospheric sounds with emphasis on vulnerability and the human condition. Their upcoming album Escape From Evil isolates itself in a world apart – a place that’s gruesome and grimy yet gorgeous all the same. Their single “Ondine” lurches forward and hides complexity underneath a smoothed out aesthetic in a way reminiscent of Beach House and Wild Beasts, and Jana Hunter’s evocative voice takes on the task of supplying emotion and passion through the wonderfully endearing lyrics. It’s a song about desperation and compassion simultaneously, and the juxtaposition of hard and soft create this amazing warmth that ultimately consumes the rest of the album. Escape From Evil will be released on March 31st.

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photo by Shawn Brackbill

The Yetis – “Mysterion”

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Pennsylvanian indie band The Yetis seem to have a little bit of everything with their music. Many different genres and influences are clearly heard, including psychadelic rock, grunge, punk, and pop, especially in their new single “Mysterion.” It swoons and swells in all the right places, with a delicately emphasized surf pop vibe that immediately injects the tune with bright sunshine and drunken love. It sounds nostalgic and modern at the same time (with peppy guitar covering up the heavy drums and bass) and yearns for a time either long past or fast approaching – allowing for anyone to grasp their own personal meaning.

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photo courtesy of the artist

Album Review: San Cisco – Gracetown

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Australian indie pop band San Cisco have been off the radar for quite some time now, without so much as a performance or a released track since the release of their self-titled album. San Cisco was filled with bright, poppy sounds and whimsical lyrical content, with an overall fantastical feel. However, San Cisco’s sophomore album Gracetown is worlds different, and seems to embody something darker and more introspective.

The first thing I notice with Gracetown – and indirectly, the band – is that it automatically sounds older and more mature, even though they kept things short and sweet like their debut. “RUN” starts the album off on an upbeat and energetic note, but it’s more than a simple, catchy beat. It slowly builds on top of it’s own sounds with added techniques underneath the melody that create a bubbly, yet mysterious mood. “Too Much Time Together” follows it nicely, with guitar chords reminiscent of their past work. The lyrics are witty and honest, and the harmonies are vivid and colorful. “Magic,” “Snow,” and “Wash It All Away” show off more of the clear 50’s and 60’s influences in San Cisco’s music, and the consistent switches from disco to indie pop. It’s here that the album shifts in mood, and throws listeners off in more ways than one. “Jealousy” changes the overall vibe considerably, taking things into a much darker and deeper route. The beats sound exotic and tribal inspired, and Jordi Davieson’s voice is as sultry as it’s ever been. This vibe is expanded even more with the track “Super Slow,” where the harmonies are soft and velvety smooth, giving me a mysterious, noir feeling. I enjoyed the change in emotion and feeling, but I wish it was presented in a more fluid way as opposed to an immediate shift. In fact, I absolutely love the darker side of San Cisco more than their poppy, overtly saccharine side, so I would have even liked to see the whole album done in this darker persona. “About You” has a lovely momentum in the instrumentals, making it one of the strongest on the album as well as the track “Skool” because of it’s quirky lyrics. It’s nostalgic and just the right amount of sweet to let you know that you’re still listening to the same band, but modern and vulnerable enough to know that there’s dimension. 

San Cisco’s sound has definitely evolved to a place that is more self-aware, but at times it falters and wavers despite all of it’s apparent internal growth. Often times I felt that they couldn’t focus on one particular feeling despite the clear overall theme of troubled relationships and love, considering the shift from happy to moody. However, the fundamentals are all there and each member of the band seems to fully understand their strengths and weaknesses. Gracetown is valiant effort and I have to commend them on evolving their lyrics and instrumentals to a place of maturity. San Cisco is slowly but surely proving their worth in the indie music world, and this album is just the beginning.

6.5/10

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photo by Kane Hibberd

Twin Shadow – “Turn Me Up”

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Twin Shadow (aka George Lewis)’s third album Eclipse was released this week, and it’s deep, dark, and refined, with an added emphasis on supreme honesty. It doesn’t present itself as shyly as Lewis’ last two albums, and it doesn’t hide behind instrumentals, letting listeners hear a more vulnerable side. “Turn Me Up” swells and expands in all the right places, and the vocals are absolutely stunning. The 80’s aesthetic is still apparent in the instrumentals, but with modern techniques that really play up the powerful themes of perseverance and strength that run rampant throughout the rest of the album as well.

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photo by Tina Tyrell

Django Django – “Reflections”

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British rock group Django Django have released the first single off of their upcoming album Born Under Saturn, and it follows the same sort of psychedelic and electronic rock style they have used in the past, but in a more elevated, luxurious way. “Reflections” has a metallic, bouncy beat to it, with wonderful synthesized vocals that evoke a supersonic, space-like feeling. It actively builds layer after layer of sound as it progresses, and the emotion is nothing short of pure and extraordinary. Born Under Saturn will be released in May.

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photo courtesy of the artist

Art of Sleeping – “Voodoo”

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I’ve adored Art of Sleeping since they released their track “Above the Water” in 2012, mainly because they understand when to be tenacious and powerful and when to be tender and soft. They’re sort of a delicate mixture of folk and alternative, but a change is pretty apparent in their new song, “Voodoo.” It’s heavier and grittier, with an added emphasis in meaning and energy.

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photo courtesy of the artist

Album Review: Dutch Uncles – O Shudder

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The fourth record from British indie band Dutch Uncles is one filled with the fears and uncertainties of anyone in their twenty-somethings – fear of growing old, of being alone, of the unknown – but yet, it’s compressed in such a lovely, retro upbeat package that the despair is brilliantly disguised and presented as euphoria. The subject matter is modern and contemporary, touching on everything from a terrible job interview to the occasional health scare, as well as overbearing themes of sex, narcissism, and obsessions with social media. This occurs despite the 80’s inspired electronic and synth instrumentals, and this inconsistency suits them and their quirky, unusual style rather well.

Opener “Babymaking” is pretty self-explanatory when you look at the title, but it’s not as crude as it leads you to believe. The gentle droplets of melody that open the track pave the way for lead singer Duncan Wallis’ to establish the mature, yet strangely surreal tone of the album. His voice has that sensual, flinty, yet overall odd and unique tinge to his voice, almost like Wild Beasts frontman Hayden Thorpe or Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor. It wavers and falters, jumping from note to note in bursts, which suits the nature of the tracks. It’s a gorgeous beginning to the album, and it leads straight into the track “Upsilon,” which is just as fantastical and supersonic as it sounds. It deals with the unnecessary drama of youth as well as the monotony of social media, and the metallic, technological beats that surround the pronounced drumming are added emphasis. Of course, O Shudder wouldn’t be considered a “mature” album if it didn’t address the obvious sexual tension and apprehension that comes with growing older, and a number of tracks on the album directly deal with exactly that. “I Should Have Read” and “Drips” go hand in hand, treating the touchy subject with grace and subtlety, albeit a little too similarly. Unfortunately, this redundancy and repetition is one problem with O Shudder. I noticed that towards the end of the album, the tracks almost seem to blur together- with the exception of more minimal beats or nervous, anxious vocals – and it’s just awkward, considering that it’s also sort of hard to figure out what song you’re actually listening to due to the similar subject matter.

However, the unique tracks on the album stand out, really stand out, and it’s what saves the album immensely. “In and Out” deals with – you guessed it, sexual tension – as well as the constant need for instant gratification in whatever it is that we as people decide to do in our lives. It’s obsessive and almost unsettling at times, but it’s the honesty that makes it admirable and addicting. The swelling instrumentals are focused and fine tuned to Wallis’ voice, and the overall emotion it brings forward is quite extraordinary. The other winner is the track “Decided Knowledge,” a narrative about a job interview gone wrong. It’s here where the comparison to 80’s bands like Tears For Fears and Erasure kicks in, as well as Dutch Uncles’ ability to transform it and bring it into the modern day. Wallis’ takes more risks with his voice stylistically, and it pays off, considering it gives the track a more pronounced personality. This is Dutch Uncles’ greatest strength – giving life to their songs – and O Shudder may very well be album that finally gives them that well-deserved push further into the limelight.

8.0/10

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photo by Danny North

Sufjan Stevens – “Should Have Known Better”

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Sufjan Stevens is getting ready to release his ninth album, Carrie & Lowell, which is said to be focused on the death of his mother and their unusual relationship, as well as the subject of life vs death in general. With such dismal topics, it’s nice that his single from the album, “Should Have Known Better,” sounds like a whisper of hope. Instead of thinking too heavily about the past, the tone in the instrumentals and Stevens’ beautiful voice is thoughtful and optimistic, and the lyrics are nothing short of poetry, which is assumed of Stevens at this point. When the childlike keyboard melodies kick in towards the end, a feeling of innocence and happiness do as well, almost as if he is ready to look forward to the future.

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photo by Emmanuel Afolabi