December 20, 2006
Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas. It is easy to feel sick about the holidays; the overbearing amount of sugar cookies, the nauseating red and green sparkles everywhere, and, most ubiquitously, the holiday jingles that rotate endlessly in your head. But there are ways to feel healthy about Christmastime; hearty Christmas hams and yams, the refreshing smell of pine, and, perhaps, Sufjan Stevens' take on winter season tunes.
This boxed set of 42 songs seems to be a microcosm of Stevens' prolific career as a singer-songwriter and arranger, ranging from his earlier simple folksy songs to the exuberant orchestral arrangements of his later work. Though obviously not as ambitious as his Fifty States Project (Stevens is trying to make an album devoted to each American state: he already has Greetings From Michigan and Come Feel the Illinois), Sufjan's epic orchestral arrangements rein throughout.
Sufjan is honest about the holiday season, which is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the album. Through his 17 original songs and 25 classics (Sufjan style, of course) he makes his listener nostalgic for winters gone by and beautifully illustrates the sadness of the season with poetic lyrics such as "Our father yells/Throwing gifts in the wood stove . . . Silent night/Nothing feels right." The lo-fi "O Holy Night" is perhaps the most bewitching song on album, yet the simplest.
Juxtapositional to these classics lies the dense orchestration of the songs "Sister Winter" and "Star of Wonder," reminiscent of his album Illinois, which pan the emotions of the winter like an old home video would. But, don't be put off by the dolefulness of many of these tracks. Like your crazy uncle and your holiday gatherings, Sufjan, too, won't let you roast too fully in the melancholy of winter. About halfway through the album he says, "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!"
Bright Eyes Bright Eyes isn't technically a New York City Band. Conor Oberst, the founder of Bright Eyes, and his evolving line-up of band mates call Omaha, Nebraska home, a place that is rather culturally and ideologically far from New York City.
Around 2002, Oberst left the wide-open planes of the Midwest for the packed concrete streets of New York. The different environment proved to have an effect on Bright Eyes music. Bright Eyes was formed in 1997 as a side project of the precocious Oberst, who was only 17. At the time Oberst was the front man for another Omaha indie-rock band called Commander Venus. When Commander Venus broke up in 1997, Oberst began to focus full time on Bright Eyes, and in 1998 he released his first Bright Eyes album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997.
At first Bright Eyes musical style was a disorganized collage of sound. Oberst had a predilection for mixing techno synthesizers and acoustic guitars, combined with his then shrieking and howling vocal delivery. With each successive Bright Eyes album Oberst's sound became more streamlined indie-folk and the vocals were pared down to a tolerable level of wailing. Slowly the critics took note of Bright Eyes, and with the 2002 release of Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (yes, that is the full title), Conor Oberst was hailed as the best new artist of the year.
It was around this time that Oberst made the move to the Big Apple. In New York City, Oberst recorded the two albums that elevated him in the public eye from a merely talented indie rocker to a critically revered songwriter. These albums were I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, both of which were released on January 25, 2005. Each album had a distinctly unique style.
Wide Awake was a folksier album, whereas Digital Ash had a heavier emphasis on electronics and heavy production. Both albums where a testament to Oberst's musical versatility and unbelievable capabilities of creating distinct images and stories with his lyrics. The lyrics of his songs bled with emotion and several critics dubbed Oberst as the "Dylan" of our generation.
Like Dylan's work, Oberst's lyrics are peppered with references to life in the city, like this description of the streets on the song "Landlocked Blues," "and the sidewalk holds diamonds like a jewelry store case." His lyrics are often sweet and a bit heavy handed with adjectives but they are always trying desperately to invite the listener in to truly experience Oberst's perception of the world.
Oberst has adopted New York as his new home, and in turn, New York has adopted Oberst as its new prodigal musical son.