Thursday, March 4, 2010

Michael Fremer Album Review

Thanks to Michael over at for the exclusive rights to reprint this material.

Sufjan Stevens (recent release)
The Brooklyn Queens Expressway

Asthmatic Kitty Records AKR 278 180g LP+comic book

Produced by: Sufjan Stevens
Engineered by: Alejandro Vengeur
Mixed by: Sufjan Stevens
Mastered by: Ray Janos at Sterling Sound

Can an indie rocker do orchestral music? (When you're Sufjan, yes)

Guest Review by: Michael Fremer

The indie rocker Sufjan Stevens brings a surprising and delightful buoyancy and sense of wonderment to his orchestral suite commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its “Next Wave” Music Festival. The original debut performances were in November of 2007.

The suite pays tribute of sorts, or at least explores musically, Mr. Stevens' reaction to the clogged and much reviled urban artery known as the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. While the road is now part of the Interstate Highway System (you know, a fantastic achievement brought to you by “the government” that conservatives insist can’t possibly do anything right), it was initially designed to connect the Triborough Bridge (now Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) in Queens with Brooklyn’s Gowanus Parkway.

The late Robert Moses designed the road, which bisected Brooklyn, destroying entire neighborhoods. He did likewise with the Cross-Bronx Expressway. His once shiny star has fallen. The original section of the BQE, and the soon to be replaced Kosciuszko bridge, which spans the once stinky (and perhaps still so) Newtown Creek forms one of the homeliest stretches of road to be found anywhere in the world.

While Sufjan Stevens wasn’t around or old enough to remember, when the original BQE opened, the area below was packed with both working class neighborhoods and a thriving industrial base.

Driving on the BQE back then, one looked out upon smoke belching factories and some that burned bright orange/blue flames of gaseous runoff atop tall, thin rods extending high in the sky. It was a sight.

Among the factories was the original EICO electronics plant where the famed tube amps and kits were designed and built.

There was also the 320,000 square foot Trunz pork products processing plant under the Kosciuszko bridge that emitted some of the foulest smells imaginable, easily distinguished from the car and other fumes.

To this day I can still smell the awfulness coming from that place, even though the closest I ever got was driving on the BQE with my father and sisters to Coney Island and Steeplechase Park. The pork products though, were apparently quite tasty.

All of this smelly, grizzly, ugly history cannot begin to prepare you for the beauty that Mr. Stevens creates here, beginning with a cacophonous drone perhaps meant to resemble traffic on the BQE. That’s followed by a gorgeous, if somewhat pompous fanfare that given the subject matter evokes a twinge of humor behind its grandeur.

Stevens the arranger has always had a deft hand with woodwinds and brass and he uses both here to evoke movement generally and traffic specifically but more subtly than Gershwin did in “An American in Paris,” for instance.

There are strains of Philip Glass’s “Koyaanisqatsi” in the high pitched dancing brass figures and following one of the few genuinely cacophonous outbursts in the piece, a dazzling display of Stevens’ fluffy-light meringue-like woodwind and brass arranging abilities to close out side one.

“Traffic Shock” opens side two with spark showers of a synthesized continuation of side one’s orchestral flow overlaid with woodwinds. Then, it’s back to the syncopated, loping, cascading orchestral figures that wind throughout the sprawling piece. As it heads to a conclusion, the music alternates between splashes of musical graffiti as brass figures explode and drip and passages filled with high drama.

All of that gives way to a lovely celeste interlude followed by more arpeggiated brass and woodwinds and a dazzling finale that does evoke Gershwin, which is surprising since I always thought Sufjan had more Copland in him.

The suite ends with a lovely, introspective solo piano denouement that looks back wistfully at the whole piece, evoking in soft tones, much of the preceding musical action, all of which revolves around hula hoop wielding super heroines and a fanciful science fiction plotline that one needn’t follow to be swept up and taken by the music.

We rarely look forward to rockers dabbling in the classical tradition, whether it’s Paul McCartney who produced some that was pretty good or Billy Joel who said he was going to but didn’t deliver.

Sufjan Stevens’ considerable and more importantly unique orchestrating abilities were obvious on his albums of songs. Here he’s managed to shuck completely the melodic songwriting conventions and constructions to which pop writers normally cling.

Even McCartney’s best “classical” works drifted back toward “tunefulness.” Stevens steers clear of triad based melodic convention here and while the work is evocative in some ways of Philip Glass, what ultimately shines through is the unique Sufjan Stevens musical personality that was remarkably well focused at the beginning of his recording career.

This is a rollicking, dynamic, playful and beautiful piece of music that flows far more effectively than does the BQE. It never gets bogged down in pop music convention and Mr. Stevens’ colorful orchestral arrangements continually delight the rhythmic and harmonic senses, aided by a superbly coherent live studio recording that’s somewhat dry and exquisitely clean and spacious. The LP mastering from a digital source by Ray Janos at Sterling is outstanding and the 180g pressing well-finished and quiet.

The LP packaging is worth a separate review. It’s a triple gatefold full color extravaganza that includes a comic book, an approximately 12”x12” full color glossy booklet containing psychedelicized photos of Brooklyn and the BQE that mirror the comic book’s hula-hoop/Robert Moses/nuclear sub sci-fi story line. Don’t expect an explanation from me! You’ll have to read the comic book and flip through the dazzling photos.

Sufjan Stevens’ BQE is also the soundtrack to a short movie of the same name that I haven’t seen. The vinyl suffices and is most enthusiastically recommended, regardless of your usual musical tastes.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by permission

This Date In Music History-March 4


Paul Mauriat (1968 #1 single chart "Love Is Blue") (1925)

Eric Allandale - Foundations (1936)

Bobby Womack (1944)

Chris Squire - Yes (1948)

Emilio Estefan - Miami Sound Machine (1950)

Chris Rea (1951)

Jason Newsted - Metallica (1963)

Richard March - Pop Will Eat Itself (1965)

Patrick Hannan - Sundays (1966)

Evan Dando - Lemonheads (1967)

Feargal Lawlor - Cranberries (1971)

They Are Missed:

Younger brother of The Bee Gees, Andy Gibb died in hospital, five days after his 30th birthday in 1978. His death from myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) followed a long battle with cocaine addiction, which had weakened his heart. In the United States, Gibb became the first male solo artist to chart three consecutive #1 singles with "I Just Want to Be Your Everything," "Love Is) Thicker Than Water" and "Shadow Dancing."

American songwriter Howard Greenfield died of a brain tumour in 1986 (age 50). Working out of the famous Brill Building with Neil Sedaka he co-wrote many hits including "Calendar Girl." "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do" and "Crying In The Rain" with Carole King. Also wrote TV theme songs including the theme to 'Bewitched.'

Richard Manuel (The Band) committed suicide in 1986 at the age of 41.

Village People singer Glenn Hughes died of lung cancer in 2001 (age 50). He was the original "Biker" character in the disco group who scored the 1978 #1 "Y.M.C.A."

In 2002, Doreen Waddell, singer with Soul II Soul was killed after attempting to run across the A27 in Brighton, England after being caught shoplifting.


In 1955, jazz great Charlie Bird Parker played at Birdland in what would be his last public performance.

The winners of the first Grammy Awards were announced in 1959. Domenico Modugno's "Volare" was Record of the Year; Henry Mancini's 'Peter Gunn' was Album of the Year and The Champs "Tequila" won best R&B performance.

In 1966, John Lennon's statement that The Beatles were 'more popular than Jesus Christ' was published in The London Evening Standard. “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. We’re more popular then Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” Christian group's in the US were outraged resulting in some states burning Beatles records. Lennon later apologized.

The Rolling Stones went to #1 on the US singles chart in 1967 with "Ruby Tuesday," the group's fourth US #1 single. "Lets Spend The Night Together" was the original A side but after radio stations banned the song "Tuesday" became the A side.

In 1970, Janis Joplin was fined $200 for onstage profanity by a Tampa, Florida judge.

Badfinger went gold with “Day After Day” in 1972.

Pink Floyd starts a three week U.S. tour in 1973 in support of their new album “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Hall & Oates recorded "Rich Girl" in 1976.

In 1977, CBS released The Clash's self- titled first album in the UK. CBS in the US refused to release it until 1979. Americans bought over 100,000 imported copies of the record making it one of the biggest- selling import records of all time.

The Rolling Stones recorded their "Love You Live" album in Toronto in 1977.

In 1978, the US internal Revenue Service carried out a dawn raid at the home of Jerry Lee Lewis and removed cars worth over $170,000 to pay off his tax debts.

In 1979, Randy Jackson of The Jackson Five was seriously injured in a car crash breaking both legs and almost died in the emergency room when a nurse inadvertently injects him with methadone.

Frank Zappa's son Dweezil and his daughter Moon Unit formed a band called Fred Zeppelin in 1982. Their first single was "My Mother is a Space Cadet."

Debbie Gibson started a three week run at #1 on the US singles chart in 1989 with "Lost In Your Eyes," her second US #1.

Kurt Cobain was rushed to hospital after overdosing on alcohol and drugs in a Rome hotel during a Nirvana European tour in 1994. Cobain had taken 50-60 pills of Rohypnol mixed with champagne; rumours on the internet claimed that Kurt was dead.

In 2004, Brian Wilson appeared at the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow during his 11-date UK tour. The shows saw Wilson performing the full suite of songs from his unreleased masterpiece 'Smile' Wilson's 'teenage symphony to God.'

Jaheim was at #1 on the US album chart in 2006 with ‘Ghetto Classics’ the American R&B singer’s third album release.

The Doors concert album, “Live In Pittsburgh 1970” was released in 2007. The set captured a show from the band's final U.S. tour. Also the Doors issue, “Vinyl Box,” a seven-LP collection containing the original stereo mixes of all six of the group's studio albums, as well as the mono version of the Doors' self-titled debut.

An expanded edition of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Street Survivors," commemorating the 30th anniversary of the '77 album's release (a tad late), was available in 2008. The two-CD collection includes the final live tracks recorded before the plane crash that killed three band members. There's also a previously un-issued Tom Dowd-produced version that Skynyrd rejected in favor of a self-produced effort they recorded later.

Instamatic Karma: Photographs of John Lennon was in bookstores in 2008. The volume was published by Lennon’s "lost weekend" lover, May Pang. "For years, only my closest friends got to see these photos -- which were literally tucked away in a shoebox in my closet," writes Pang in the book. Lennon’s “lost weekend” was a period in the ‘70s when the ex-Beatle and Yoko Ono had split. They later reconciled.

Rockabye Baby!, a company that produces mellow instrumental versions of popular Rock songs geared toward infants, released an album of reworked AC/DC tunes in 2008. “Rockabye Baby!: Lullaby Renditions of AC/DC “ features versions of "Highway To Hell" and "Back In Black." Is nothing sacred?

Britney Spears kicked off a world tour in New Orleans in 2009, her first concert tour for five years. The 27-year-old who dressed as a ringmaster in the show, featured jugglers, acrobats and martial arts dancers.

Music News & Notes

Paramore Limited Edition Vinyl

Paramore has announced that they’ll be releasing a limited edition vinyl record package including an LP version of Brand New Eyes and a 7" single of "Brick By Boring Brick."

The LP, pressed on jet black slabs of wax, is limited to 5,000 copies for the entire globe! The 7" is a picture disc featuring the image of wings from the albums booklet on the A side and Hayley’s handwritten lyrics on the flip side.


Flaming Lips Take ‘Embroyonic’ On The Road

Oklahoma-based rockers the Flaming Lips will play a slew of new tour dates in support of 2009's Embryonic, the band's 12th LP and first-ever double album. The equally psychedelic Stardeath And White Dwarfs will join the group at most of the shows, which begin in March in Austin, Texas, and end in July at New York’s Central Park SummerStage.

A stop at the Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival is included in the currently 18-date tour. For this show, the Flaming Lips will play a full set in addition to a collaborative performance with Stardeath And White Dwarfs of Pink Floyd's classic album, The Dark Side Of The Moon. Prior to this show, the Flaming Lips will release a physical version of last year's Dark Side remake with Stardeath And White Dwarfs and guest musicians Henry Rollins and Peaches. The vinyl edition goes on sale April 17, and the CD version comes out May 4.


Skeletonwitch Limited Vinyl Release

Prosthetic Records is happy to announce Skeletonwitch's "Worship the Witch" 10" EPs have arrived. Pre-orders are shipping now and the rest of the limited pressing is up for sale now.

Originally released as a follow up to their first full length, "At One With The Shadows," SKELETONWITCH gained momentum by slef releasing this 4 song EP on CD that would later create their PROSTHETIC debut, "Beyond The Permafrost." This is the first time "Worship the Witch" is available on wax! The artwork has been reconfigured by John Baizley (Kylesa, Baroness)

Here is the breakdown of the color ways and limitations on each: Black Wax - 400 Copies * Yellow Wax - 200 Copies * Blue Wax - 200 Copies * Green Wax - 100 Copies (sold out through pre-order) * Clear Wax- 100 Copies (available exclusively through the band)


Johnny Cash Final American Recording Album A Hit

Johnny Cash's American VI: Ain't No Grave, the Man in Black's "final victory," according to USA Today, enters the Billboard 200 Albums charts next week at #3, marking the highest debut of the week with more than 54,000 units sold. The album also debuted in the #2 spot on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart.

The album, which closes out the Rick Rubin-produced and critically-acclaimed American Recordings series, was officially released on February 26, the day that would have been Cash's 78th birthday. Cash's Ain't No Grave shares the apex of the Billboard chart with Sade's Soldier of Love (#1) and Lady Gaga's The Fame (#2).

American VI: Ain't No Grave was recorded in the months leading up to Cash's passing on September12, 2003. The songs were drawn from all over the musical landscape and from various eras, and include Sheryl Crow's moving "Redemption Day," close Cash friend Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times," "Can Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" by Tom Paxton, Bob Nolan's "Cool Water," the hopeful "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" by Ed McCurdy, J.H. Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes's "Satisfied Mind," Queen Lili'uokalani's song of farewell "Aloha Oe," and the never before heard Cash original, "I Corinthians: 15:55," written over the last three years of his life.


Lou Reed Classic Remastered For Vinyl, DVD Audio and Blu-Ray

Lou Reed has finalized details of the digitally re-mastered edition of his seminal 1975 album "Metal Machine Music." Reed will release the ground breaking album in the UK on April 19th on his independent label "Sister Ray" in the following three formats – double gatefold vinyl in quadraphonic sound, audio DVD and Blu-ray.

The album coincides with Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio UK concerts at the Cambridge Junction (April 17), Oxford O2 Academy (April 18) and London Royal Festival Hall (April 19, part of the Ether Festival).

Lou did the digital re-mastering from the original multi-tracks with the help of world-renowned mastering guru, Scott Hull. This is a new and improved re-mastered version, and is different from all previous releases on the RCA, Buddha and Sony affiliated labels.